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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

FEMA allocates $3 million for initial phase of coral reef restoration

The San Juan Bay project, part of a $38.6 million initiative, seeks to reduce flooding and protect some 800 structures surrounding the communities of Escambrón, Condado, Ocean Park and Puntas Las Marías.

By The Star Staff

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has allocated $3 million under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) for the first phase of restoration of the barrier coral reef located in the San Juan Bay.

The allotment announced earlier this week is the first under the HGMP to restore a natural resource to protect survivors after a disaster.

The project seeks to reduce flooding and protect some 800 structures surrounding the communities of Escambrón, Condado, Ocean Park and Puntas Las Marías. The initiative consists of two phases, for a total of some $38.6 million.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia said that with the allocation, “We continue to support our public policy for the protection and preservation of our natural resources that seeks to mitigate the impact of climate change on our island.”

“With these federal funds, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) will create a system of hybrid coral reefs, including artificial coral and native living coral,” the governor said in a written statement. “This is an integral part of the initiatives we are working on to further the goals of our Ecological Emergency Declaration of 2021 to address the stony coral tissue loss disease and our Executive Order establishing a State of Emergency on Coastal Erosion.”

Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator José G. Baquero added that “[c]oral reefs are natural barriers that prevent the loss of life and property by reducing the risk of flooding and erosion of infrastructure due to high-energy wave and current impact.”

“This historic obligation will undoubtedly open the door for similar initiatives that address the effects of climate change and its impact on communities,” he said.

Coral reefs act as naturally submerged breakwaters. They are very effective since they reduce the energy of the waves that reach the coasts. The structures defend communities from coastal flooding, whether during storms or from rising sea levels.

Local stressors around San Juan Bay have affected the optimal levels of protection of the current system. As a result, the 5-kilometer area is subject to continuous coastal flooding and erosion, to the impact of strong surges, as well as to other effects of future storms. This disrupts public and private infrastructure and endangers lives along San Juan’s metropolitan coastline.

“Without healthy reefs, this coast would suffer from coastal flooding, loss of infrastructure and loss of beach for recreation and for nesting endangered sea turtles, such as the leatherback, which return to these shores from March to July, where they were born, to leave their nests,” said Hilda Benítez Álvarez and Aida Balzac, the president and vice president, respectively, of the Tortuguero de San Juan 7 Quillas Group, in a statement.

Both grew up in the Ocean Park and Punta Las Marías areas and have witnessed how much the offshore zone has shortened, and the significant increase in storm surges that cause coastal flooding.

The funds allocated to the DNER seek to increase the three-dimensional structure of the coral reef, reducing wave energy. The action plan will install a mix of cement structures similar to artificial coral and native living coral at 0.8 kilometers off the coast of San Juan.

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