Natural Disasters and Other Emergencies

A lone survivor after thousands of albatross chicks were washed away at Midway Atoll NWR during the 2011 tsunami. | USFWS

In nature, one must expect the unexpected. From natural events such as hurricanes, wildfires and floods to man-made disasters like oil spills, the Refuge System must be prepared to respond to emergencies. Baby sea turtles, nesting birds and many endangered animals are often in the path of natural disasters. The ability of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to respond quickly to these disasters can determine the fate of these vulnerable creatures.

Natural Disasters

In recent decades, natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and droughts have become more prevalent and more intense. These events can devastate national wildlife refuges and other protected areas. We cannot stop Mother Nature, but we can work to safeguard and restore wildlife havens from natural disasters.

In 2011 alone, a slew of disasters has wreaked havoc on refuges nationwide. Massive flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, devastating tornadoes and wildfires, hurricanes and tropical storms, and even a tsunami and an earthquake have caused almost $200 million in damages – more than one-third of the Refuge System’s annual operations and maintenance annual budget. Without additional funding from Congress to cover these costs, repair projects will be added to the growing backlog of unmet needs on refuges.

  • Climate change is a real and growing problem for refuges and wildlife.  The increase in natural disasters is no coincidence. Scientists tell us our planet is changing as a result of human activity and we are now paying the price.  2010 saw 247 natural disasters, a record-breaking number. These events caused $109 billion worth of economic damage worldwide, three times more than in 2009. Natural habitats, particularly the saltwater and freshwater marshes found at many refuges, help diminish the threat of floods, droughts, sea-level rise and destructive storms. We can help lessen the impacts of climate change by conserving these vital habitats. 
  • Refuge staff deserve recognition for their efforts to save wildlife. During the 2011 Horseshoe 2 Fire in Arizona, San Bernardino refuge staff spent more than 200 hours trying to salvage native fish, such as the federally endangered Yaqui chub, from affected areas outside the refuge. FWS employees are first responders to such devastating incidents in their communities. They put themselves on the front lines and never hesitate to put wildlife first. These inspiring individuals deserve our recognition and support.

Oil Spills

BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon disaster dumped more than 200 million gallons of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and it may take decades for wildlife in this region to recover. The long-term impacts of oil and dispersants on pelicans, sea turtles, manatees and the other Gulf animals are still uncertain. The oil may have stopped flowing, but efforts to heal the Gulf Coast are still a priority.

Brown pelicans were one of many species impacted by the Deepwater horizon oil spill. | Evan Hirsche

The impact on our national wildlife refuges continues  – in spring 2011, one year after the spill, a total of 200,000 pounds of oil were removed from the Southeastern Louisiana Refuge Complex in a single month alone. In the past year, the FWS devoted half a million hours to oil spill crisis response and restoration activities and deployed more than 17 percent of its total workforce to the region, diverting resources away from important conservation work elsewhere in the country.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association is leading efforts to ensure that Congress and the administration hold BP to its commitment to restore the Gulf, and that our national wildlife refuges and FWS have the funding and staff to successfully address critical conservation needs.

National wildlife refuges on the front line

Many national wildlife refuges are located in the Gulf Coast region – from Texas to the tip of Florida.  Thousands of brown pelicans raise their young on Breton refuge in Louisiana, endangered sea turtles nest at Bon Secour refuge in Alabama, and manatees seek shelter in the warm springs of Chassahowitzka refuge in Florida.

Thousands of hard-working FWS staff from around the country were deployed to these and other Gulf Coast refuges after the oil spill. Here are some of their stories:


How NWRA is Taking Action to Protect Gulf of Mexico Wildlife:

  • NWRA is working closely with government officials to ensure that acquiring and restoring habitat to protect wildlife throughout the Gulf region is a top priority – and that BP is held accountable for the damages to our natural resources.
  • We are educating lawmakers and the public about the importance of adequately funding successful wildlife conservation programs – especially on our National Wildlife Refuges, many of which suffered from neglect as FWS staff from across the country were deployed to the Gulf during the crisis. To learn more, click here.
  • We support Gulf Coast refuge Friends groups through our Gulf Coast Response Fund. To see how the Friends of Bon Secour have made a difference at their refuge, view this video.

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