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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

FEMA, in coordination with island groups, tackles coastal erosion for long-term recovery

Attention to coastal erosion exacerbated by recent hurricanes and other damage due to climate change is key in coordinating a long-term recovery for Puerto Rico, experts agree.

By The Star Staff

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will carry out a series of works on the island’s northern coast to mitigate the reduction in the size of dunes and their ability to act as natural barriers to prevent coastal erosion in Puerto Rico.

The northern coast is home to nearly 50 percent of the island’s dunes, which play an important role in the ecosystem: they protect hawksbill turtle habitats, as well as communities and critical infrastructure, from coastal flooding and storm surges. However, hurricanes Irma and Maria, the commercial and illegal extraction of sand and heavy foot traffic from beachgoers, among other factors, have reduced the dunes’ size.

Attention to this and other damage due to climate change is key in coordinating a long-term recovery for Puerto Rico, experts agree. Aware of this, FEMA said it is working with local organizations to find solutions that contribute to preserving the island’s infrastructure and natural resources.

“Long-term recovery requires us to develop projects focused on mitigation, preservation and nature-based solutions. The agency has already obligated over $1.5 billion for mitigation measures for public assistance projects and approved over $3 billion under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program,” said Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator José G. Baquero. “However, citizen participation and the knowledge of local students and researchers are required to find answers that apply to our needs as a Caribbean island. Puerto Rico has the talent and FEMA provides the funds: we all work as a team for the common good.”

To address coastal erosion, a team of students and researchers from Vida Marina: Center for Conservation and Ecological Restoration, from the Aguadilla Campus of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), has been working with communities on natural measures to restore the dunes of the north coast.

With the support of over $650,000 from FEMA and through a collaborative agreement with the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), the organization will restore what is known as biomimicry matrices on Maranto Beach in Arecibo, the Nolla Farm in Camuy, and the Middles and Poza del Teodoro beaches in Isabela. Biomimicry is the practice of designing solutions that imitate nature or natural processes. As part of the project, Vida Marina installed pieces of disused wooden pallets to create matrices three feet underground to promote the sand’s natural accumulation. The project also includes the reconstruction of boardwalks and fences at critical access points to reduce pedestrian impact on the dunes.

The center will install informational signs to educate the public about the dunes and to protect them from potential human damage. As part of the mitigation measures for the project, materials will be used to reinforce the structure of the boardwalks against the waves caused by future hurricanes.

Puerto Rico Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency (COR3) Executive Director Manuel A. Laboy Rivera stated that “government agencies, as well as municipalities and nonprofit organizations, concentrate part of their efforts on the development of projects focused on mitigating multiple risks to rebuild a resilient infrastructure.”

“Complying with Governor Pedro Pierluisi’s public policy, we will continue supporting this development led by the DNER and the UPR Aguadilla Campus, which is in addition to other measures the governor recently announced to mitigate coastal erosion through an allocation of $105 million.”

Repairs to the Caña Gorda Beach facilities in the municipality of Guánica is another permanent project of the agency that incorporates nature-based solutions. There are nearly $770,000 to address damage to the lifeguard area, offices, lightning poles, and gazebos, among others. Within the mitigation measures for the project, the affected area will include a revetment with vegetation to protect the coastline. This nature-based solution provides economic, aesthetic and ecological benefits, and also mitigates erosion and damage from storm surges.

A $1.5 million allocation, meanwhile, allowed UPR to develop an assessment of beach systems after the passage of Hurricane Maria. The study generated a high-precision database that presents the attributes and extension changes of the 1,285 beaches of Puerto Rico after the storm. As part of the project, UPR designed a story map that contains all the study findings and is accessible to government agencies and other entities, civic organizations and the public.

During the disclosure of the study, 48 actions were presented to solve the erosion problem on the island.

To address the challenges of climate change from the agency and with a focus on the particular needs of Puerto Rico, a group of local FEMA personnel developed the Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Memorandum, which acknowledges the need to establish immediate actions that address the threats of climate change as part of FEMA’s recovery efforts on the island. The memorandum is an initial effort to define and identify steps, and support those considered at the federal level, in response to President Biden’s public policy to address climate change.

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