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Rigorously valuing the coastal hazard risks reduction provided by potential coral reef restoration in Florida and Puerto Rico

September 7, 2021

The restoration of coastal habitats, particularly coral reefs, can reduce risks by decreasing the exposure of coastal communities to flooding hazards. In the United States, the protective services provided by coral reefs were recently assessed in social and economic terms, with the annual protection provided by U.S. coral reefs off the coasts of the State of Florida and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico estimated to be more than 9,800 people and $859 million (2010 U.S. dollars). Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 caused widespread damage to coral reefs in the State of Florida and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Here we combine engineering, ecologic, geospatial, social, and economic data and tools to provide a rigorous valuation of where potential coral reef restoration could decrease the hazard faced by Florida and Puerto Rico’s reef-fronted coastal communities. The three restoration scenarios considered: (1) Ecological restoration, ‘E25’, which assumes planting 0.25-meter (m)-high corals on a (cross-shore) 25-m-wide reef; (2) Structural plus ecological, ‘S25’, which assumes emplacing a 1.00-m high structure with 0.25-m high corals on top on a 25 m wide reef; and (3) structural plus ecological, ‘S05’, which assumes emplacing a 1.00-m high structure with 0.25-m high corals on top on a 5 m wide reef. Planted corals are assumed to increase hydrodynamic roughness, thereby dissipating incident wave energy and decreasing flooding potential. We used a standardized approach to ‘place’ potential restoration projects throughout the whole (linear) extent of reefs bordering Florida and Puerto Rico to identify where coral reef restoration could be useful for meeting flood reduction benefits. We always sited potential restoration projects within the existing distribution of reefs even though many sites were far (kilometers [km]) offshore and some sites were relatively deep (up to 7 m depth). We followed risk-based valuation approaches to map flood zones at 10-square-meter resolution along all 980 km of Florida and Puerto’s Rico reef-lined shorelines for the three potential coral reef restoration scenarios and compare them to the flood zones without coral reef restoration. We quantified the potential coastal flood risk reduction provided by coral reef restoration using the latest information from the U.S. Census Bureau, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Bureau of Economic Analysis for return-interval storm events. Using the damages associated with each storm probability, we also calculate the change in annual expected damages, a measure of the annual protection gained because of coral reef restoration. We found that the benefits of reef restoration off Florida and Puerto Rico are spatially highly variable. In most areas, we found little or no benefit from reef restoration (for example, restoration sites were far offshore or deep). However, there were a number of key areas where reef restoration could have substantial benefits for flood risk reduction. In particular, we estimated the protection gained by Florida and Puerto Rico’s coral reefs from coral reef restoration to result in:

  • Avoided flooding to more than 5.6 square kilometers (2.16 square miles) of land annually;
  • Avoided flooding affecting more than 3,100 people annually;
  • Avoided direct damages of more than $124.2 million to more than 890 buildings annually; and
  • Avoided indirect damages to more $148.7 million in economic activity owing to housing and business damage annually.

Thus, the annual value of flood risk reduction provided by potential coral reef restoration in Florida and Puerto Rico is more than 3,100 people and $272.9 million (2010 U.S. dollars) in economic activity. These data provide stakeholders and decision makers with a spatially explicit, rigorous valuation of how, where, and when potential coral reef restoration in Florida and Puerto Rico can increase critical coastal storm flood reduction benefits. These results help identify areas where reef management, recovery, and restoration could potentially help reduce the risk to, and increase the resiliency of, Florida and Puerto Rico’s coastal communities.