An inspiring example of collaborative efforts that bring environmentalists and the insurance industry together to protect fragile marine ecosystems.
In an unusual experiment, a coral reef in Mexico is now insured against hurricanes. A team of locals known as “the Brigade” rushed to repair the devastated corals, piece by piece.
When Hurricane Delta hit Puerto Morelos, Mexico, in October, a team known as the Brigade waited anxiously for the sea to quiet. The group, an assortment of tour guides, diving instructors, park rangers, fishermen and researchers, needed to get in the water as soon as possible. The coral reef that protects their town — an undersea forest of living limestone branches that blunted the storm’s destructive power — had taken a beating.
Now it was their turn to help the reef, and they didn’t have much time.
“We’re like paramedics,” said María del Carmen García Rivas, director of the national park that manages the reef and a leader of the Brigade. When broken corals roll around and get buried in the sand, they soon die. But pieces can be saved if they are fastened back onto the reef.
“The more days that pass, the less chance they have of survival,” she said.
The race to repair the reef is more than an ecological fight; it’s also a radical experiment in finance. The reef could be the first natural structure in the world with its own insurance policy, according to environmental groups and insurance companies. And Hurricane Delta’s force triggered the first payout — about $850,000 to be used for the reef’s repairs.
The success or failure of this experiment could determine whether communities around the world start using a new tool that marries nature and finance to protect against the effects of climate change. The response to Delta was a first test.
When the Brigade laid eyes on their reef, which runs 28 kilometers south of Cancún and is home to critically endangered elkhorn coral, it looked ransacked. Structures the size of bathtubs were flipped upside down. Coral stalks lay like felled trees. Countless smaller fragments of broken coral coated the seafloor.
On the boat, cement mixers prepared a special paste that snorkelers ferried down to divers who spent hours underwater carefully fastening pieces back on the reef. They used inflatable bags to turn over large formations rolled by the storm and collected fragments to seed new colonies.
The Brigade’s members, mostly volunteers, delighted in the bright damselfish that darted into restored crevices even before the paste had hardened. But there was so much to do and so little time.
At the end of a grueling day, Tamara Adame, a diving instructor and guide, wondered if the tiny team could make a dent. “Is it actually going to make a difference that I’m here all day picking up the pieces?” she asked herself.
‘Like water in the desert’
Just as a house is insured against fire, or a car against crashes, last year a 167-kilometer stretch of the coast, including the reef, was insured against hurricanes with a wind speed of 100 knots or greater, which is a Category 3 storm.
It didn’t take long for the policy to pay off: Hurricane Delta slammed into the reef in October. The governor of the state of Quintana Roo announced the payout on Facebook Live: 17 million pesos.
Ideally, reefs wouldn’t need such interventions. After all, they’ve been surviving hurricanes for millennia.
But in Quintana Roo, like so many parts of the world, humans have weakened coral, tiny tentacled animals that secrete layers of limestone to build outer skeletons for themselves. Rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, sewage pollution and overfishing leave coral more vulnerable to hurricane damage.
And hurricanes themselves are becoming more severe because of climate change. This year, the Atlantic has seen the most named storms on record.
Environmentalists and insurance companies behind the effort hope it becomes a model for protecting other far-flung coastlines, whether in Florida or Indonesia, insuring not just coral reefs but also mangroves, salt marshes and other natural barriers to storms. These nature-based defenses protect coastal properties and biodiversity all at once.
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