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Damping Down Hurricanes

As Frances, Charley, and Ivan have shown, the destruction of property and lives caused by hurricanes can be staggering, especially when strong ones arrive in rapid succession, as they have this season.

Yet for all their adverse effects, these monster storms can also have restorative outcomes, at least as they relate to land.

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Swells from hurricanes Fabian and Isabel in 2003, for instance, caused a significant increase in sand along New Jersey and North and South Carolina beaches. Strong winds and wave action can build up beaches by dumping sand onto the back side of barrier islands, which can become higher and wider post-hurricane, too.

Communities can help in this process, or at least dampen hurricanes' negative impact, by investing in a concept called "geologic-based hazard mitigation." In plain English, that means using native plants and sand dunes, for example, to help protect the land.

It also means prohibiting construction of homes and infrastructure in ways that can increase the likelihood of hurricane damage. Many beach roads, for instance, run perpendicular to the shoreline and right up to the beach, acting as ideal channels for a hurricane's storm surge and ebb.

In Florida, tons of junk, such as broken pieces of bridges or concrete pipes, will be used to expand artificial reefs offshore. The reefs can serve to trap sand and deter erosion.

A recent Duke University study of North Carolina's coastal communities aptly sums it up: "If human activities can cause or aggravate the destructive effects of natural phenomena, they can also eliminate or reduce them."

It's up to citizens to find more ways to ensure that natural events like hurricanes are not converted into larger disasters by their own actions.