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Debris-flow growth in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria: Preliminary results from analyses of pre- and post-event lidar data

February 28, 2021

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria triggered widespread debris flows in Puerto Rico. We used field observations and pre- and post-Maria lidar to study the volumetric growth of long-travelled (>400 m) debris flows in four basins. We found overall growth rates that ranged from 0.7 to 30.4 m3 per meter of channel length. We partitioned the rates into two growth mechanisms, aggregation of multiple landslides, or erosion and entrainment of channel sediment. In three basins, landslides accounted for more than 80% of the total debris-flow volumes. In one basin, entrainment accounted for 96% of the volume. These results indicate that forecasting volumes for regional debris-flow inundation modeling is more complicated than estimating the number and volume of contributing landslide source areas, although this task is difficult by itself. In this preliminary analysis, we did not find geologic, topographic, or morphometric variables that correlated with the growth observations. We suspect that the observed growth rates were heavily influenced by local variations in environmental conditions, including antecedent soil moisture conditions, duration and intensity of rainfall, and availability of channel material. Given these considerations, regional debris-flow inundation modeling may be best achieved by using a suite of scenarios that capture possible mechanisms of debris-flow growth.

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