Wind and waves are always rearranging barrier islands. If you’ve ever stood on the beach at the edge of the water and watched the sand sloshing around your feet in the waves, you’ve seen it action. On breezy days you can feel bits of the island blowing by in the form of sand against your face. Hurricanes are the most radical versions of this constant movement. When Katrina’s giant storm surge washed across the barrier islands of Gulf Islands National Seashore, it leveled their dune systems, scoured out new channels, and washed away sand flats at the islands extremities. It also swept away and drowned plants and animals.
In February I rode out to the islands with our park biologist to take photos. The islands looked pretty bleak. Little of the massive dunes of Horn Island are left: eroded rumps clustered around broken trees. The trees that stood up to the surge are gray and dry, and only sun-bleached and leafless stems remain of many of the smaller plants that covered the islands’ interiors.
But I didn’t go to take pictures of destruction. If you’re like me, you’re probably tired of looking at the devastation. I was looking for signs of natural renewal, and evidence that Katrina might even have been beneficial to the islands or to the life they host. After all, these islands have survived hurricanes since the first day of their existence.
The first living thing I noticed when I went ashore on Petit Bois Island was a small indestructible mustard plant called sea rocket. Sea rocket lives on the margins of the habitable island. It is found on the bare, infertile sand of the upper beach–the part of the beach that is closest to the water but doesn’t get wet during most high tides. It lives exposed to extremes of summer heat and windy winter cold, to the frequent pelting of airborne sand and the occasional pounding surf. It lives there because it is the best adapted plant at doing so. It has tenacious roots that soak up scarce fresh water during rains and thick rubbery leaves that lock in moisture against evaporation. (Sea rocket is one tough plant. I once found one growing on a beach in New York, its tiny purple four-petal flowers blooming in defiance of the howling, sub-zero winter day.)
It turns out that sea rocket can grow anywhere on the island. The storm surge moved a lot of things around the Mississippi Sound: refrigerators, roofs, casinos, etc. But it also moved sea rocket around the islands. I found sea rocket growing in an unusual place: in the middle of Petit Bois Island, under the shade of some pine trees, through a heavy litter of pine needles. It is growing there now because it took hold ahead of the island interior’s usual inhabitants. Those other plants may come back later, fed by nutrients washed ashore by the storm, and push the sea rocket back to the beach.
Signs of natural renewal are everywhere on the barrier islands. Besides the amazing sea rocket, beach grasses are now poking through the sand, and saw palmettos and prickly pear cactuses are re-sprouting. Around the island’s brackish ponds and marshes, plants like cord grass and black needle-rush that live partly submerged during high tides are doing just fine. A close look at a stand of yaupon holly reveals new growth. Even many of the slash pines, reddened by the initial burn of wind of salt water then fading to a drab gray, are showing a little green these days.
Island animals are clinging to these little bits of green. Dragonflies still buzz around the ponds and marshes. There are monarch butterflies and song sparrows in the bushes, and footprints of herons and raccoons around the tidal pools. A pair of bald eagles is already nesting in a tree on what’s left East Ship Island. This spring we’ll be looking for ospreys, skimmers, and terns to return to their island breeding grounds.
You can see it all for yourself. Ferry service to West Ship Island will resume on April 14, though amenities on the island will be very limited. If you have your own boat, you can also visit Petit Bois, Horn, and East Ship Islands (Cat Island is still closed). You can help the islands recover by being a low impact visitor. Stay off the dunes and steer clear of osprey nests and ground-nesting shorebirds.
The hardest thing for us people–park staff and visitors–to cope with out there will be the loss of our facilities and the damage to our monuments. Work and money will heal those wounds. If we let nature take its course the islands, and their plants and animals, will take of themselves.
March 20, 2006. This article appeared in Arrowhead, the newsletter of the Employees and Alumni Association of the National Park Service, published by Eastern National, Spring 2006, vol. 13, no. 2.