Talk NERRdy to Me: Angela Underwood

Talk NERRdy to Me: Angela Underwood

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29-soon-to-be-30 Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov zoomed to Alabama to talk with Angela Underwood, education coordinator at the Weeks Bay Reserve, about BIOdiversity and equity, remote estuary education, and joining the secret society of the Jubilee.

Nik: Welcome to the “show,” Angela!

Angela :This is really exciting! It does make me nervous, though.

Nik: We’re talking the day after tornadoes ripped through northern Alabama, and you’re nervous about talking to some idiot from Maine? What’s worse in your mind: a hurricane or a tornado?

Angela:Tornadoes still frighten me more. They’re so unpredictable, although the forecasting has gotten better. But neither one is something you’d want to go through.

Nik: Has Weeks Bay been hit lately by either?

Angela: We were hit by Hurricane Sally last September. It was predicted to be a Category 1 hurricane and weaken as it came up on shore, but it actually did the opposite. There was a lot of damage to trees, wetlands, and rooftops. We’re still recovering and probably will be for many years. A few weeks later we had Hurricane Zeta.

Nik: Right, we got into the Greek letters. Because #2020.

Angela: What a year, right? Zeta pushed a lot of water into Weeks Bay. We had piers destroyed from the uprising of water.

Nik: Weeks Bay has a tiny little river mouth, right?

Angela: It does. Please don’t ask me how wide though!

Nik: You’re an education coordinator. Every fact is supposed to be at your fingertips!

Angela: I know, I know! 

Nik: Is part of your education work to teach people about coastal hazards?

Angela: We do, especially with our Coastal Training Program. We also are partnering with the Northern Gulf of Mexico Sentinel Site Cooperative to train teachers on some new curriculum on sea level rise and coastal hazards, to get students thinking about how communities can be more resilient.

Nik: What’s the reception from teachers and students when you talk about sea level rise and climate change in coastal Alabama?

Angela: Really good among our teachers. They want more knowledge on it, because they want to be able to teach their students better.

Nik: You’re not from the coast, though, right? You actually went to Auburn. Quick question for you: why is it the Auburn Tigers? Have there ever been tigers in Alabama? There are bears in Florida, aren’t there? Jaguars in Jacksonville?

Angela: I went to school there and I have no idea! You know how sports teams are. They pick aggressive…

Nik: …charismatic megafauna? Yeah. OK. But you did your masters in biological sciences?

Angela: I did. I went to a small school in Montgomery for my undergrad and then completed my graduate studies at Auburn. That’s the area I’m from, too. I focused on the ecology of the ecosystems in Alabama. I consider myself a naturalist, but learning about estuaries didn’t actually come until I moved down here and took a position as an educational assistant at the Reserve. I had a lot of knowledge about Alabama ecosystems, but estuaries were new to me. Ok, now let me ask you a question for a minute.

Nik: Oh boy.

Angela: In the US, where does Alabama rank for biodiversity?

Nik: Are you in the Top 10? Yes? Top 5?!?

Angela: We used to be #5. The four above us were all big huge states west of the MississippiCalifornia, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico… But east of the Mississippi, we’re number one.

Nik: Ok, why?

Angela: I’m glad you asked! I call Alabama the Goldilocks state. It’s not too hot, not too cold. We get lots of rain, especially along the Gulf Coast, so we have great water resources. If you start at the top of the state, you have mountains and cave systems that are actually hotspots for cave biodiversity in the entire world. As you come down, you have…

Nik: Racetracks!

Angela: Prairie systems. You keep coming down and you have long-leaf pine forest with these pitcher plant bogs, and all along the coast you have the delta and the estuarine systems, and right at the coast you have the dune systems.

So you have this magnificent rich ecology in Alabama. For biodiversity, we used to rank #5, right behind New Mexico. I used to joke that if we could just find a few more species, we would beat them. Well guess what? As of a few weeks ago, I read in the news that now we officially are #4.

Nik: We’ve been working on extirpating things in New Mexico for a while now, too. You’re welcome. How did you get into nature? I always ask that; it’s one of the most important things to know about people who work in our system. We need to know where we came from, so we can grab more “ones of us” coming up now.

Angela: I always enjoyed being outside. My dad would take me fishing as a child. But I don’t think it was a straight path for me. In college, I was really interested in human biology and genetics, but I took one ecology course. Later I was able to take a two-week study abroad program where I went to the Amazon rainforest in Peru. Being there and seeing it made ecology make sense to me.

I went to grad school thinking I was going to teach biology. But I met this great professor there, and she and her husband were both naturalists working at Auburn. She specialized in pitcher plant bogs. And I was like ‘pitcher plant? What’s that?’ I decided to work with her, and that’s when the world was opened up to me about Alabama. If I could, I would just take people all over the state and teach them about the wonders of Alabama.

Nik: You had to go down to the Amazon to learn that?

Angela: I did, yeah. And I learned that Alabama has habitats that rival the Amazon for biodiversity! There are some well-maintained pitcher plant bogs that have more biodiversity in a meter square than the Amazon does.

Nik: Are you constantly dragging your own kids off their screens and into the outdoors?

Angela: I have two girls, nine and four. They get very little screen time, haha. They’re outdoors constantly. Though during COVID, we got really into iNaturalist together.

Angela’s two daughters, appreciating an Alabama ecosystem.

Nik: I want to ask you about a phenomenon I learned about in the Weeks Bay Visitor’s Center down at the annual meeting in 2015. Have you ever actually seen a jubilee? So apparently there are just times of year there when you all can go out with a wheelbarrow and gather up four or five seafood dinners from the shore of Mobile Bay? 

Angela: No, I haven’t, and I’m so disappointed! Jubilees tend to be a well-kept secret among the locals, because when it happens they want to be the ones to go scoop up the flounder and the blue crab.

It tends to happen in the summer, when there are wedges of low oxygen because of the hotter water. That incoming tide pushes the wedge of low oxygen in towards shore and pushes all of those ground and bottom dwelling species like the flounder and blue crab and eels.

They’re not dead, they’re just a little stunned. People will go out and gather them, hundreds at a time. The story is that this only happens in one other place in the world, and that’s in Japan. 

Nik: So you have to be on a text alert to catch it?

Angela: You really do! That’s what people do, they call each other. Since I don’t live right on the Bay, I’m never going to catch it.

Nik: Bummer. Hey, you all recently won a national art contest! Or enabled a win, at least?

Angela: It was a school we worked with that won it. We have good connections with a lot of the local art teachers. A teacher reached out to us and said they wanted to apply for this art contest. They’re not able to take field trips here because of COVID restrictions, so they asked us if we could bring the estuary to them! 

We went out and gave a short presentation to each of the art classes. We talked about the different animals and biodiversity, showed them some preserved specimens, and let them ask questions. They were able to touch the specimens and make sketches and produce that incredible mural. I was honestly so impressed.

Nik: WAIT! the kids made this beautiful artistic representation of the estuary without even getting to go there?

Photo Credit: Outdoor Alabama

Nik: It’s above water and below water… They got all that without even getting there? 

Angela: They were 7th and 8th graders and so talented, and they really have a talented teacher too. We went in the fall and she had only had the students for two months at that point. I was really proud of them, it’s always really fun to go into a classroom and get to be in the students’ “habitat!” For me it doesn’t compare to being able to bring them out into the estuary, but it is fun to go into schools.

Nik: I hope we can all get back into that, as soon as we can. Thank you so much, Angela.

Angela: Please edit out any places that sounded stupid!

Nik: I’m sorry, we can’t do that. You’d never hear my voice at all.

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Derelict is Dangerous & Weeks Bay Cleans It Up

Derelict is Dangerous & Weeks Bay Cleans It Up

Volunteers restore a damaged shoreline following the removal of a derelict vessel at Alabama’s Weeks Bay Reserve.

For volunteers like Nancy Tuttle, keeping Alabama’s Weeks Bay clear of debris is just good common sense. “Weeks Bay, its rivers, and ultimately the Gulf are the lifeblood of our area,” she says. “Almost everyone I know swims, boats, fishes, or otherwises uses these waterways. I’m on the water at least three or four times a month. For me, this is my home, and I like to keep it clean.”

Nancy supports the efforts of the Weeks Bay Reserve and partners to remove derelict and abandoned vessels and raise boat owners’ awareness of the danger debris poses. Left alone, such debris damages valuable habitats and fisheries and impairs the appearance, safety, and navigability of waterways. For the residents of Alabama’s Baldwin county—who rely on their ocean economy for more than $522 million in gross domestic product and $253 million in wages—keeping Weeks Bay clean is vital.

Nancy Tuttle at a volunteer-led clean-up at Weeks Bay Reserve help identify large marine debris for removal.

Volunteers like Nancy participate in annual, kayak-based cleanups where they mark large pieces of debris that need to be hauled away. Weeks Bay Reserve staff and Weeks Bay Foundation members identify the vessels and work with a contractor to remove the debris.

Not only did volunteers aid in the removal of the debris, they replanted one of the shorelines to restore it after the vessel was removed. Stabilized shorelines buffer and protect communities from flooding and storm surge: a similar volunteer-planted shoreline at Apalachicola Reserve withstood Hurricane Michael in 2018.

One of five derelict vessels—some of which had been in the water for decadesthat was removed from Weeks Bay Reserve earlier this year.

The Weeks Bay Reserve developed an ongoing “Derelict is Dangerous” campaign to raise boaters’ awareness of the problem with the help of a grant from NOAA’s Community-Based Marine Debris Removal program and funding from the Alabama State Lands Division. The campaign provides Gulf Coast boat owners with information on maritime laws, storm preparation, and ways to prevent and report marine debris. 

“People know that trash in the environment is bad, but they may not have a complete understanding of the impacts to habitats, marine life, and even human health,” says Angela Underwood, education coordinator at Weeks Bay Reserve. “That’s what makes outreach like this so vital.”

The Reserve has educated hundreds of community members on the dangers of marine debris and abandoned vessels via  outreach events and signage related to marine debris at marinas, environmental centers, and boat ramps throughout Baldwin County.

A replanted site at the Weeks Bay Reserve.

Rising to the Challenge

Rising to the Challenge

Properties elevated above the flood level in Alabama’s Baldwin County. Photo credit WPMI.

Floods are the most common natural disaster in the country. For the residents of coastal Alabama and Mississippi, who are impacted by flooding regularly, one of the smart ways to protect their property is through flood insurance, which covers $28.5 billion worth of properties in both states combined. However, many of those property-owners at-risk lack knowledge and resources to navigate the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). That’s why Alabama’s Weeks Bay and Mississippi’s Grand Bay Reserves are helping floodplain managers rise to the challenge of protecting their communities.

An elevation certificate is a critical piece of paperwork mandated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) NFIP. It describes the building location, lowest floor elevation, flood zone, and other characteristics—all of which are necessary to enforce local ordinances and determine insurance rates. These certificates are often filled out incorrectly and thus rejected by FEMA, leaving properties vulnerable.

In response, Weeks Bay Reserve and Grand Bay Reserve partnered to host three Elevation Certificate trainings in 2018 and 2019, reaching more than 100 participants, including floodplain managers, planners, city and county officials, building inspectors, code enforcement staff,  land surveyors, engineers, insurance companies, and real estate representatives.

“Many participants were surprised at what they didn’t know or were doing wrong,” says Margo Posten, coastal training program coordinator for Grand Bay Reserve. “Floodplain managers asked us for this training, and a lot of them found it exceptionally useful.”

The need for the training was identified by the Southern Alabama Flooding Engagement Team (SAFE-T), which Weeks Bay Reserve is an active participant in, and augmented with the perspectives of a coastal Mississippi flooding user group. Weeks Bay staff worked with the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), the state agency responsible for administration of the NFIP, as part of the training. 

“This is very hands-on class from the perspective of someone who fills out Elevation Certificates,” said one workshop participant in a post-workshop review. “Most beneficial class I have been to in years!”

“For me, a highlight of the training was the interaction between local floodplain managers, the state-level agency people, the insurance representatives, and the surveyors,” says Mike Shelton, coastal training program coordinator at Weeks Bay Reserve. “Instead of being in a fraught or adversarial mindset, workshop participants were able to provide their perspectives to the examples identified by the instructor.”

As a result of these trainings, theAlabama Society of Professional Land Surveyors.d is planning to hold its own elevation certificate workshop at their state-wide annual meeting. Because of the overwhelming response from other participants, the Reserves also plan to hold future trainings.

“Having partners, including other NERRs, for training such as this is really invaluable,” says Posten. “I know that I personally don’t have expertise in all the different topic areas that our diverse audiences need training in. Partners are the key—they bring their expertise to the training and often access to professional experts.”

Alabama Puts SAFE-T First

Alabama Puts SAFE-T First

Flooding causes major damage across coastal Alabama. That’s why, with the help of Weeks Bay Reserve, these communities are teaming up to better address flooding issues throughout the state. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Four billion dollars—that was the cost of severe storms and flooding in Alabama in 2018. When the problem’s that big, collaboration is critical. That’s why the Weeks Bay Reserve developed the  South Alabama Flooding Engagement Team (SAFE-T)—to help floodplain managers meet, share resources, and communicate to improve flood management and outreach across their communities. 

“SAFE-T brings together people from different disciplines and backgrounds to collaborate on issues related to floodplain and watershed management,” says Lannie Smith, Floodplain Administrator for Orange Beach, Alabama.  “As past president of the Alabama Association of Floodplain Managers, I can say that this type of regional collaboration has been a goal at the state level for years. I believe that, in the near future, we will see tangible results in the form of better management practices and lower flood premiums due largely to the work of SAFE-T.”

SAFE-T was created from a 2016 NOAA-funded Community Resilience Initiative to help coastal Alabama communities address flooding and floodplain management. Coastal towns like Orange Beach identified training and communication as high priorities. In response the Weeks Bay Coastal Training Program (CTP) convened the first SAFE-T meeting in 2018.

Weeks Bay Reserve works to meet training needs identified by the community floodplain managers who make up SAFE-T. Recent trainings focused on risk communication and FEMA Elevation Certificates.

The group meets quarterly and engages community floodplain managers, planners, local Community Rating System (CRS) coordinators, private insurers, consultants. and state agency representatives. The Weeks Bay Reserve supports them by identifying speakers and sponsoring  trainings. Recently, the Reserve brought NOAA’s risk communications training to SAFE-T and the organizations they represent in coastal Alabama. They also brought together a FEMA Elevation Certificate training in collaboration with Grand Bay Reserve.

Funds have been made available through the same Community Resilience Initiative that led to SAFE-T for non-structural flood management projects and community policy development. So far, four communities brought together by SAFE-T have secured small grants through this program.

“The Weeks Bay Reserve and the Alabama DCNR brought the right people together to initiate the conversation regarding the benefits of a users group and the results have been amazing to watch,” says Smith. 

With the ongoing pressures of climate change, the importance of SAFE-T to Alabama’s coastal communities is only growing more vital. “SAFE-T is still in its infancy, but moving forward it is important that there is a forum to discuss floodplain management concerns facing all of Alabama’s coastal communities,” says Mike Shelton, Coastal Training Program coordinator for Weeks Bay. “The Weeks Bay CTP and partners will continue to support the group with facilitation at meetings, training on topics that SAFE-T identifies as necessary or useful, and with technical support.”

ReservesWeeks Bay, Alabama