Coastal erosion and its relation to climate change and human intervention

 Social and environmental factors have had an impact on the Puerto Rican communities that live on the coast. 

Ishbel Cora / 23 years / Puerto Rico

 Manifestations of climate change have worsened the state of Puerto Rican beaches. According to Ph.D. Maritza Barreto Orta, oceanographer and marine geologist, situations such as the rise in the sea level, the increase of high-intensity hurricanes, and the impact of cold fronts in ocean surf confirm this. 

In her most recent study The state of beaches in Puerto Rico, the oceanographer evaluated the state of beaches before and after hurricanes Irma and María. The study, which was also conducted by a group of students and professors from the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, focused on changes related to the geomorphology of beaches. 

“In general terms, the first thing we found was that all beaches in Puerto Rico are flattened,” said the professor of the Graduate School of Planning at the University of Puerto Rico. Additionally, Barreto Orta said that in the northwest of the island, the hurricane’s effect not only flattened the beaches but also shortened them. 

Flattening and erosion – What does it mean? 

According to the planning professor, erosion refers to the horizontal or vertical loss of a sand deposit; “When the beach flattens out completely, what it means is that it reduces its buffering capacity to face weather events such as strong waves and storm surges,” said Barreto Orta. 

She explained that, when the coast is shorter, the wave can enter directly to the beach. Because it does not have time to reduces its energy, the flood arrives more inland. This action increases the vulnerability of the communities and all the infrastructure that exists on the coast. 

The effect of the swells in Parcelas Suárez. (Courtesy of Andrés Santana Miranda/Diálogo) 

To Barreto Orta, the problem in Puerto Rico and many parts of the world is that, when the sand of the beach goes away, it does not come back. For example, since 2012 in Parcelas Suárez(a sector of a town named Loíza) there has been a continuous erosion. According to the oceanographer, among the reasons that could have led to erosion are human activities, poor coastal management, and changes in land use that are not made on par with the physical and social reality of the coast. 

However, a question that neither Barreto Orta nor other experts have been able to answer with certainty is where the sand has gone after hurricane María. 

According to Diálogo, digital newspaper of the University of Puerto Rico, Parcelas Suárez lost about 20 meters of beach. (Courtesy of Andrés Santana Miranda/Diálogo) 

Community response to adversities 

The community that lives in Parcelas Suárez is aware of climate change as well as to the problems related to coastal erosion. But despite community leaders are always preparing themselves to cope with any atmospheric event, something still missing. 

According to local newspaper El Nuevo Día, after hurricane María, 598 families in Loíza lost their roof, and 298 families lost their entire house. To this day, after a year and six months of María, some people continue using awnings as roofs. 

“The recovery process still slow. The reconstruction of our homes hasn’t finished(…)For us, it is important to repair our houses. Abandoned houses could lead to vandalism in the communities”, said Alexis Correa Allende, a 34-year leader based in Parcelas Suárez. 

According to Correa Allende, since 2002 the community center of 11th Street has been closed as an effect of coastal erosion. 

On the other hand, Evelyn Allende Carrasquillo, a community leader that have lived 31 years in Parcelas Suárez, said that the reconstruction process after María has been slow because “many people don’t have the title of their homes.” Allende Carrasquillo said that agencies like the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA), “do not always respond to the needs of the community because of the lack of property titles.” 

According to local newspaper El Nuevo Día, the Housing Department of Puerto Rico gave last year $214 million to a program named “Your home is reborn.” The program was supposed to use the money to rebuild the homes of those affected. However, according to Allende Carrasquillo, “the work done by ‘Your home is reborn’ hasn’t been efficient.” 

A mandatory resistance 

Culturally, Loíza has remained the capital of tradition because of its food, crab fishing, and Bomba; a traditional dance and musical style of Puerto Rico which origins are rooted in the island’s history of African slavery. However, according to social anthropologist Bárbara Abadía-Rexach, that sounds good until you acknowledge that, in terms of services and benefits, Loíza has remained kind of isolated. 

To the Puerto Rican anthropologist, the disengagement of people with Loíza -compared with the rest of the island- could be an effect of racialization and discrimination. In that sense, “the fact that Loíza has maintained its traditions, it’s due to the resilience that the community has had to embrace.” 

Community leaders are focused on involving the rest of the community to fight for their well-being. (Photo credit: Ishbel Cora Rodríguez) 

According to Abadía-Rexach, factors that enable the development of a town such as housing, health, and economy are getting worse. 

“No human being deserves to be resilient; no human deserves to have to fight against forces that operate in the detriment of their black bodies and their cultural activities,” said the social anthropology professor at the University of Puerto Rico. 

In response to their basic needs, the Ilé Collective, a non-profit organization which primary mission is to encourage antiracist education, is working on a project that will enable the people of Loíza to obtain the legal rights of their homes. 

Now what? 

As part of the Community Board Residents, Allende Carrasquillo and -for the most part- other women, has been creating awareness in the community about their rights as human beings. 

Even though Doctor Barreto says that it is dangerous to construct in flood zones, she believes that -to minimize community damage- the people of the community need to decide their welfare in conjunction with the government. 

Based on the results obtained by Barreto Orta and the research group, some recommendations were made on what courses of action should be taken to mitigate the damage. Among the solutions is to strengthen the data bank related to the state of beaches, to create environmental management plans for swells and fronts of cold; and to develop public policy in collaboration with the communities that live in the coast. 

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