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Rigorously valuing the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on coastal hazard risks in Florida and Puerto Rico

September 7, 2021

The degradation of coastal habitats, particularly coral reefs, raises risks by increasing the exposure of coastal communities to flooding hazards. In the United States, the physical 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. These damages were measured in post-storm surveys of reefs and assessed in terms of their impact on reef condition and height, which are critical parameters for evaluating the coastal defense benefits of reefs. We combined engineering, ecologic, geospatial, social, and economic data and tools to value the increased risks in Florida and Puerto Rico from hurricane-induced damages to their adjacent coral reefs. We followed risk-based valuation approaches to map flooding at 10-square-meter resolution along all 980 kilometers of Florida and Puerto Rico’s reef-lined shorelines considering reef condition before (undamaged) and after (damaged) the 2017 hurricanes. We quantified the coastal flood risk increase caused by the hurricane-induced damage to the coral reefs 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 calculated the change in annual expected damages, a measure of the annual protection lost because of the reef damage caused by the 2017 hurricanes. We found that the damages to the coral reefs off Florida and Puerto Rico from Hurricanes Irma and Maria increased future risks significantly. In particular, we estimated the protection lost by Florida and Puerto Rico’s coral reefs from the 2017 hurricanes to result in:

  • Increased flooding to more than 10.72 square kilometers (4.14 square miles) of land annually;
  • Increased flooding affecting more than 4,300 people annually;
  • Increased direct damages of more than $57.2 million to more than 1,800 buildings annually; and
  • Increased indirect damages to more $124.3 million in economic activity owing to housing and business damage annually.

Thus, the annual value of increased flood risk caused by the damage to Florida and Puerto Rico’s coral reefs from hurricanes in 2017 is more than 4,300 people and $181.5 mil-lion (2010 U.S. dollars) in economic impacts. These data provide stakeholders and decision makers with a spatially explicit, rigorous valuation of how, where, and when the damage from the 2017 hurricanes decreased critical coastal storm flood reduction benefits to Florida and Puerto Rico’s coral reefs. 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.