A look back: Student marsh restoration saved shoreline from devastating hurricane

In October 2018, Hurricane Michael smacked the Florida Panhandle with winds up to 160 mph and storm surges as high as 14 feet. In Franklin County, houses were damaged, roads washed out, and overnight, debris and erosion transformed the coast. But at the Apalachicola Reserve offsite link, a ribbon of saltmarsh extending about 1,000 feet along the coast was remarkably undisturbed in the wake of that category five storm — a testimony to the power of local students.

A restored part of the marsh on the Apalachicola Reserve after hurricane Michael.
A restored part of the marsh on the Apalachicola Reserve after hurricane Michael. (Courtesy of Jeff Dutrow)

This particular marsh has been under the care of the children of Franklin County since 2011, when the reserve began to use it as the centerpiece for their education program. Every local child has the opportunity to learn about their estuary and how to protect it, not once, but six times as they move from pre-K to high school.

“Being in a rural district provides a unique opportunity for us to work with students as they grow,” says Jeff Dutrow, the reserve’s education coordinator. “We help them build a sense of stewardship through experiences that promote understanding and ownership of the watershed and confidence that they can make a difference.”

By third grade, students are immersed in programs that explore the ecology of Apalachicola’s world-famous oysters and the estuary itself — what Dutrow calls an “all-you-can-eat buffet for living things.”

In fifth grade, students pull on boots, slog through the mud, and plant cordgrass in the marsh. Their goal is to prevent erosion and create new habitat for the estuary critters that are the foundation of the local tourism and seafood industries. In seventh grade, students return to measure the progress of marsh growth and to count periwinkle snails, which are an indicator of the health of the food web. “We teach seventh grade students to use good mathematical estimation skills and to groundtruth their estimates,” explains Dutrow.

In addition to providing a living laboratory, the Apalachicola Reserve has deep ties to the local community. “One day when we were pulling on our boots, a student told us the park where we were working in was named after his grandfather, and another looked up and saw her father out at sea, tonging for oysters,” remembers Melanie Humble, a Franklin County educator who has brought many classes to the marsh.

“Moments like that, where there is a perfect synthesis of history, community, and a path to a better future, are what teachers and students dream about — away from four walls and artifice and filled with practical ecology and hard, muddy work.

In the wake of Hurricane Michael, students and educators got to see how their efforts helped protect the shoreline and the estuary that many families depend on for their livelihoods. Restored marshlands like these can act as natural buffers, absorbing the wind and water from storms to protect inland areas.

“The estuary provides Franklin County with a rich abundance of activities, food, wildlife, and for our youth, so much more than the fun of splashing in the water or casting a line,” says Gina Tarranto, Dean of Students at the Apalachicola Bay Charter School offsite link. “Through our partnership with the reserve, we can provide insightful learning opportunities that build future stewardship of our unique way of life by positively impacting the estuary where our roots are firmly placed.”

A version of this story was featured in the Fiscal Year 2019 NOAA Education Accomplishments Report.