Researchers with the Nature Conservancy, Risk Management Solutions and UC Santa Cruz looked at how mangroves helped protect some Florida counties from damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017. The recent study found that mangroves reduce flood damages to properties by 25 percent.
WUSF's Jessica Meszaros spoke with Laura Geselbracht, senior marine scientist for the Nature Conservancy in Florida.
Meszaros: What did you learn about mangroves, conducting this study?
Geselbracht: Following an Irma-like storm, we estimated $1.5 billion in storm surge flooding reductions. So those were mostly recorded in Collier and Lee counties where the storm where Irma hit directly. And also some in Miami-Dade County where there were storm impacts.
Meszaros: Why was the reduction was so great in those particular areas?
Geselbracht: Southwest Florida and the southern part of Miami-Dade County -- they all have extensive mangrove forests, which helped tremendously to slow the water penetration to homes, and businesses, roads, infrastructure. These mangroves not only reduce the losses to properties but also protected over 600,000 people from flooding impacts.
Meszaros: The southern part of Florida still has very dense stands of mangroves, but moving up the coast a lot of the mangroves have been removed to allow for coastal development. Can you talk about that loss of habitat?
Geselbracht: So it's kind of a double whammy in the sense that not only do you not have that protection, but you're right on the front line with your buildings and homes and infrastructure. So mangroves are very protected in Florida, but we're hoping that, you know, there'll be a renewed push to really improve the protections for our mangroves that currently exist, and also enable the restoration of mangroves where we can. There's a big push right now to harden our shores, as you know sea level rises. But if we do that pairing our natural infrastructure like mangroves with the hardened infrastructure, we can not only improve our protection, but will also improve a lot of the other benefits that our natural systems like mangroves bring with them.
Meszaros: What do you hope to accomplish with this study?
Geselbracht: Pairing our work with RMS, this Risk Management Solutions company that provides risk management information to the insurance industry will have an opportunity for insurers to take things like coastal habitats into account they'll have some quantified information where they can do that. It may also drive local governments and state governments, maybe the federal government as well, to have stricter protection rules for our coastal habitats, and also free up some fundings for some projects to restore mangroves so that they can provide some additional protections.
As climate warms, mangroves are moving into new areas where maybe they're salt marshes now and some of those salt marshes are quickly becoming mangrove forests. And in some areas, people aren't familiar with seeing mangroves and they think this is an invasive species or something. So hopefully, this type of study will illustrate to people that don't worry, don't fret the mangroves, cherish them. They're doing you a favor, they're helping to protect your properties.