Added Funding Aids Recovery from 2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires

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In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria caused roughly $265 billion in damage and killed more than 3,000 people in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The same year, California wildfires killed 47 people, burned over a million acres of land, and destroyed or damaged more than 10,000 buildings.

This article is part of the December 2018-January 2019 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

A graph shows hurricane damage using stacks of gold coins

Comparison of United States economic damages from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017. (Public domain.)

On February 9, 2018, the President signed Public Law 115-123, which provided $42.2 million in hurricane and wildfire disaster recovery funds to the USGS. Here’s a short description of how and why the USGS is using those taxpayer dollars for equipment repair and replacement, updated maps, and scientific studies to prepare for future calamities.

Stream gages knocked out by hurricanes

The USGS operates approximately 8,300 stream gages across the country that measure water levels, stream flow, and rainfall. These data help protect life and property from water-related hazards, such as floods; enables cost-effective management of fresh water for drinking, irrigation, energy, industry, recreation, and ecosystem health; and promotes economic well-being. The USGS provides this information to federal, state, tribal, and local agencies, as well as to the public.

The 2017 major hurricanes damaged or destroyed over 200 stream gages. The USGS is using the disaster recovery funds to repair or replace those gages and other sensors.

Altered streams and rivers

In Puerto Rico, hurricane-generated floods changed the depth, width, and shape of many rivers and streams, which affects USGS stream flow measurements. The USGS is re-surveying altered stream gage locations to restore accurate readings.

Restarting and restoring stream gages and rain gauges

In recent years, financial constraints on the Puerto Rican government limited the maintenance and operation of some stream gages and rain gauges. The disaster recovery funding supports operation and maintenance of 52 sites through the end of 2018. At the request of NOAA and the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency, the USGS is also restoring many rain gauges to help forecast flash floods through 2019.

Earthquake and geomagnetic monitoring

USGS is restoring and hardening critical earthquake and geomagnetic monitoring equipment that was severely damaged by Hurricane Maria. Seismic sensors measure earthquake intensities and locations, which can guide emergency responders to the worst-hit areas and help warn coastal residents of potential tsunamis. Large magnetic storms caused by the sun have knocked out electricity grids, disrupted communications, and rerouted airliners. By measuring and analyzing geomagnetic fields, scientists can help everyone prepare for these events.

Coral reef sensors

As part of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, the USGS studies priority areas to guide watershed and coral reef restoration, which will reduce coastal hazards and increase the resiliency of coastal communities. The USGS is replacing, repairing, and hardening oceanographic and sediment sampling sensors that were damaged or destroyed on coral reefs in Puerto Rico. The USGS will also complete an analysis of storm hazards to coastal communities with coral reefs damaged by hurricanes.

Updated land elevations

The USGS 3D Elevation Program provides highly accurate, nation-wide elevation data for hazard response, recovery, and mitigation. With the added funding, scientists are collecting and processing light detection and ranging (lidar) data at hurricane-damaged locations in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico; and in several California wildfire areas. USGS landslide, debris flow, and coastal hazard scientists need detailed elevation data to forecast future events. Other government agencies and private companies can use these updated maps for reconstruction and recovery.

Landslides and debris flows

Hurricane Maria generated more than 40,000 landslides in Puerto Rico, devastating infrastructure and property, interfering with rebuilding and recovery, and increasing risks from future storms. USGS will study landslide conditions and damage, identify threats to public safety and rebuilding crews, and publish hazard assessments to guide recovery and rebuilding in areas with the greatest risk.

Coastal damage

Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused coastal flooding, erosion, and coral reef destruction in Florida and Puerto Rico. This damage increases the immediate hazards to densely-populated shorelines, and threatens critical infrastructure like roads, ports, and power plants.

USGS is updating and expanding analyses of coastal vulnerability to future storms in these areas. The findings will support local repair and recovery work, emergency preparedness, real-time hazard guidance during future storms, and long-term management of infrastructure and coastal protection systems.

Tracking taxpayer dollars

Pie chart with percentages of supplemental funding activities

Breakdown of USGS 2018 supplemental hurricane and wildfire spending. Source: USGS Fact Sheet 2018-3063 - 2018 Hurricane and Wildfire Supplemental Funding: USGS Recovery Activities. (Public domain.)

The USGS set up a team specifically to track spending of this added funding. Scientists and management prepared detailed budgets in advance; kept comprehensive spending records; and sent special reports to Congress. The money supported work at 14 USGS Science Centers across the country.