Rapid Response & Emergency Restoration

Staghorn Corals in Cane Bay, St. Croix. Photo © Kemit-Amon Lewis/TNC

Coral reefs are subject to numerous local, regional, and global stressors. While chronic threats to reefs like poor water quality and overfishing require long-term management actions to be mitigated, acute events (e.g., strong storms, oil spills) often require a different set of immediate or emergency responses with activities to repair a reef and rescue coral colonies. Addressing impacts quickly and effectively is critical for increasing the likelihood that coral reefs will continue to provide valuable services to local communities in the future. In order to respond in this manner, a response plan should be developed in advance of any event. More information can be found in the Rapid Response & Emergency Restoration lesson of the Restoration online course

Response Plan

A response plan is an agreed-upon strategy that can be acted upon in the case of an event that damages a reef in order to quickly mitigate impacts and reduce further damage. Although different impacts may require unique activities, response plans often have common elements:

An Operational Structure

Includes all entities and organizations that have agreed to participate in response activities, including a lead organization (or point person) and teams with specific and known responsibilities.

A Logistics Plan

Includes logistics that should be in place to guarantee the supply and availability of materials and resources during field activities.

Plans for a Rapid Reef Assessment

Includes an assessment done immediately after an event to determine the extent and location of reef damage, and identifying emergency activities that need to follow.

An Emergency or Primary Restoration Plan

Includes removing the source of the impact and other remaining hazards, and conducting reef rescue activities such as reattaching or stabilizing broken fragments or dislodged colonies.

Plans for Additional or Secondary Restoration Activities

Includes activities such as moving rescued coral fragments into nurseries, outplanting corals back onto damaged reefs, and stabilizing structural fractures on damaged colonies.

A Communications Plan

Includes key messages and information to share with different audiences such as stakeholder partners or the public.

Storm Damage

Tropical storms (called cyclones, typhoons, or hurricanes) are characterized by strong winds and currents, heavy rainfall, and storm surge (rising water due to low- pressure systems). Tropical storms often occur during predictable seasons, from June to November in the Atlantic Ocean and November to April in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

When less intense and less frequent, storms can positively affect coral reefs by increasing coral diversity and reducing thermal stress. However, strong and intense storms can cause heavy damage to coral reefs, and frequent storms occurring every two years or less can prevent reef recovery.

Tropical storms cause different levels of damage to reefs, ranging from mild or partial damage to complete reef loss. These storms can cause high coral mortality due to abrasion, fracture, and colony detachment. Coral mortality often continues after a storm has passed because injured corals are more susceptible to disease, bleaching, and predation.

Coral with abrasion damage after Hurricane Emily in 2004. Photo © Juan Carlos Huitrón

High winds and flooding during tropical storms also have the potential to generate substantial amounts of debris from large structures, household articles, and outdoor items, which can be pulled into the sea and further damage coral reefs.

This section summarizes Early Warning and Rapid Response Protocol: Actions to Mitigate the Impact of Tropical Cyclones on Coral Reefs (English) (Español). Though specific to Puerto Morelos, Mexico, the key components of this protocol can be applied in any reef area.

Operational Structure

A response plan or protocol with an operational structure should be prepared ahead of the storm season with all participating organizations. In this way, the response activities can be acted upon quickly. The Puerto Morelos Response Protocol includes the following operational groups.

This committee is made of a coordinator, leaders of in-water response teams, and an operations and communications lead. The committee plans, directs, and coordinates all activities from the protocol, including: 

  • Reviewing and updating the protocol annually
  • Preparing and coordinating response plan implementation 
  • Establishing, training, and coordinating the response teams or ‘brigades’
  • Managing funds to implement activities
  • Continued and on-going coordination with partner institutions
First Responders discussing primary response actions. Photo © Gisela Maldonado

First Responders discussing primary response actions. Photo © Gisela Maldonado

The brigades are teams consisting of 4-6 divers, 2-4 snorkelers, 1-2 boat assistants, and one sailor and captain who are trained to implement the post-storm response in-water activities. Response brigade activities include:

  • Carrying out a rapid reef assessment immediately after a storm
  • Removing debris and rubble from the reef after a storm
  • Implementing primary response actions, such as repositioning, reattaching, and stabilizing broken, dislodged, or overturned coral colonies and fragments
  • Removing and securing colonies buried under the sand
  • Removing or stabilizing dead coral rubble and removing sediment from the reef
  • Implementing secondary response actions, such as stabilizing structural fractures, placing coral fragments in nurseries, and maintaining nurseries and restoration sites
Brigade members load the boat and prepare their scuba gear for a day of training on the water. Photo © Jennifer Adler

Brigade members load the boat and prepare their scuba gear for a day of training on the water. Photo © Jennifer Adler

This team consists of one leader and two logistics teams with 2-3 people each. This team coordinates the logistics and operations needed to carry out the protocol, including:

  • Facilitating internal and external communication between the committee, response brigades, and partners
  • Supplying materials, fuel, food, beverages and other supplies to the brigades
  • Monitoring the activities and location of each brigade
  • Mobilizing equipment, boats, and supplies necessary for response activities
  • Collecting and disposing of debris brought back by the response brigades 
  • Preparing, maintaining, and safeguarding equipment (tool boxes, first aid kits, etc.)
A team is needed to coordinate logistics and communications of the response plan. Photo © Jennifer Adler

A team is needed to coordinate logistics and communications of the response plan. Photo © Jennifer Adler

Key Partners

A network of partner organizations is important for obtaining the resources and personnel needed for a successful and timely storm response. Partners can include government agencies, private companies, NGOs, and others looking to contribute to response efforts.

Planning & Preparation

Prior to the storm season, the following activities should be conducted to plan and prepare for a rapid reef response in case of a damaging tropical storm.

Planning Activities

  • Evaluating and Updating a Response Plan – Each year after the storm season and response activities, the response plan should be updated and improved upon based on feedback and evaluation from response brigades.
  • Preparing an Annual Action Plan – This plan outlines the actions to be implemented to prepare before the next storm season. Key aspects include a plan for funding and managing resources and for managing transportation needs (e.g., local boats or vehicles to use during the response).
  • Establishing Inter-Institutional Partnerships – Partnerships should be made prior to the storm season with agencies and organizations that can help implement the response protocol. Examples include partners that can provide a space for operations or holding equipment or suppliers of materials.
  • Secure Insurance Policies for Response Brigades – Temporary insurance policies (e.g. diving insurance) should be available to cover accidents that may occur during field activities.

Preparation Activities

  • Preparing Materials and Equipment for Response Brigades – Prior to the storm season, materials and equipment needed by response teams should be purchased or replaced and pre-assembled in waterproof cases. This is critical as access to materials may be limited after a storm event.
  • Conducting Baseline Surveys – Baseline surveys of local reefs should be conducted annually or semi-annually prior to the storm season, or data should be obtained through local partners. Baseline information is used to compare and identify the extent of post-storm impacts to reefs.
  • Establishing a Communication Network – A plan should be established to coordinate and send alerts to the committee, response brigades, and partners. Means of communication should be accessible during electrical or cellular signal failure, and contact information for team leaders should be kept up to date.
  • Training Response Brigades – Brigades should be trained before the storm season on field activities including conducting rapid reef assessments, removal of heavy objects underwater, reattaching or stabilizing damaged corals or fragments, and SCUBA diving first aid and CPR.
  • Identifying Threats and Reducing Risks – Potential sources of damage to reefs in case of a storm should be identified, reported to local agencies, and removed before the storm season. Threats can include infrastructure that is obsolete or needs repair, loose trees or branches on the coast, and sources of pollutants (e.g., drains, sewage, garbage dumps). A formal risk assessment of the site, diver conditions, and equipment can be used.
  • Building Coral Nurseries – Nurseries can be used to shelter coral fragments rescued from reefs after storms, allowing corals to stabilize before being transferred back to the reef. Nurseries should be established at least three months prior to the storm season to test different designs.

Early Warning Stage

This stage includes actions to be carried out during the presence of the tropical storm in the area, both in its approaching and retreating phases. The Puerto Morelos Protocol offers an Early Warning System with alert categories from Blue (minimum danger) to Red (maximum danger) for the approaching and retreating phases of a storm.

Response teams should be informed of a potential storm to have time to prepare for an immediate and effective response. The type of action taken in the early warning stage depends on the level of alert, which depends on the distance and intensity of the storm and whether it is approaching or retreating from the area.

Approaching Phase

If a tropical storm is predicted to impact a local area, the Committee should continuously monitor local forecasting reports and proceed according to the level of threat.

Stages in the tropical storm approaching phase. From: Zepeda et al. 2018

Retreating Phase

The storm’s movement away from the affected area and local conditions should be monitored to determine when response brigades can be deployed. It is recommended to evaluate general sea conditions, water visibility, safety of access routes to the sea, safety of brigade members (and families), and status of vehicles, boats, and equipment to be used. Response team safety is fundamental during this process.

Stages in the tropical storm retreating phase. From: Zepeda et al. 2018

Detailed information on early warning systems and activities can be found in the Early Warning and Rapid Response Protocol: Actions to Mitigate the Impact of Tropical Cyclones on Coral Reefs (English) (Español).

Rapid Damage Assessment

Once response brigades have been dispatched to sea after a storm, their first task is to conduct a rapid reef assessment to determine the level of damage to local reefs. This assessment should occur within several days after the storm or when conditions are safe for field activities.

The rapid assessment should identify major damages and the most affected reef areas in order to prioritize areas for immediate response. Debris generated by the storm should be recorded as well as the level of intervention required to remove it. The following techniques are recommended to minimize time in the water.

Manta tow surveys

This method includes a snorkeler who is dragged slowly by a boat while holding onto a flotation device, allowing the snorkeler to record information and hold a GPS device and camera for photos or videos. Information can also be recorded from the boat by other members of the brigade using an agreed-upon signal code.

Diver giving signals to boat members to record data during an assessment. Photo © Jennifer Adler

Drone surveys

Drones can be used for aerial damage assessments to obtain high resolution and georeferenced videos and images with greater detail than satellite imagery. Aerial data can estimate the amount of disaster debris dragged into the sea by the storm in shallow water areas, on reefs, and along the coastline.

Drone being used to survey the coral reef bottom topography. Photo © Tim Calver

Types of data that should be recorded for the rapid damage assessment include:

  • Presence of coral fragments that need immediate stabilization
  • Presence of fractures in the reef structure or to massive colonies
  • Presence of corals buried under the sediment
  • Presence of overturned, fragmented and/or dragged corals
  • Percent damage in the coral reef in relation to the total area observed
  • Presence of debris or dead coral rubble that are moving and potentially causing damage
  • Percent or magnitude of damage to the reef structure

Data should be analyzed immediately, and the results should be used to generate maps showing the most affected sites. These data can then be used to generate plans for response and further restoration activities.

Primary Response

Rehabilitation and restoration efforts after a storm event often include a primary and a secondary response. The purpose of the primary response is to reduce damage caused by the storm and prevent further damage from occurring. These actions should take place immediately or within a month after the storm and include the following activities:

Clean-up activities

Debris caused by a storm can be anthropogenic (construction material, appliances, garbage, pollutants) or natural (tree trunks, branches, organic material), and both types can damage the reef. Debris left on reefs can continue to move around and harm corals and other benthic organisms. Activities include cleaning the beach and removing objects floating in the sea or deposited in shallow and reef areas.

Repositioning and reattaching corals

Storms can generate loose coral fragments, break or overturn colonies, cause fractures in hard corals, and tear soft corals. Affected organisms should be repositioned and reattached to increase chances of recovery.

Reattachment of Caribbean elkhorn coral colony. Photo © Claudia Padilla

Removing loose fragments and sediment

Loose coral fragments and moved sediment can further damage reef organisms. These should either be removed or stabilized to minimize future damage.

Secondary Response

The secondary response includes rescuing corals that could not be tended to during primary response efforts. These actions should take place within several weeks to months after the storm and include the following activities:

Stabilizing fragments in coral nurseries

Corals have the highest chance of survival within 2 weeks of an event. Loose coral fragments with low chance of survival or ability for reattachment should be collected and moved into coral nurseries.

Collecting coral fragments generated by a storm to take to a nearby nursery. Photo © Regional Center of Aquaculture and Fisheries Research (CRIAP)/National Fisheries Institute (INAPESCA)

Stabilizing structural fractures

Fractures or partial cracks in coral colonies can be stabilized with epoxy clay, cement, or other reinforcing materials. If the fracture is very large, reinforcements with stainless steel rods or cement may be required.

Maintaining nurseries and impacted sites

Routine maintenance is required for coral nurseries and sites damaged by storms to keep macroalgal growth under control. Routine monitoring is also helpful for tracking the condition of corals in nurseries before outplanting them onto the reef.

Case Studies

Tropical storm frequency and intensity are increasing across the globe. As more efforts are being made to respond to and restore reefs after major storms, there are lessons to be learned from diverse regions about their activities. Read two case studies from Australia and Puerto Rico on emergency and rapid response efforts after major storms that occurred in 2017.