What Will It Take to Green Puerto Rico Again?

Not only did Hurricane Maria destroy most of Puerto Rico's man-made infrastructure, it also defoliated the island's vast tropical forests, upsetting the forest ecology—in the short term.
October 6, 2017, 9am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"One of the most dramatic sights left by Hurricane Maria is the denuding of Puerto Rico," states NPR's John Burnett in his report (available on audio) on Puerto Rico's forest ecology. "The lush forests for which this island is famous were stripped bare by the cyclone."

Fortunately, the destruction to the forests is one of defoliation, not deforestation. The foliage will return, though, just like it did after the category 3 Hurricane Hugo devastated part of the island in September 1989. 

Like the destroyed electric grid and other crucial infrastructure that will be rebuilt with help from the Army Corps of Engineers that serve the 3.4 million residents of this Caribbean island, though, it will take time, and in the near term, be disruptive, particularly to the forest's fauna. But the results are worth the wait, according to scientists who have "been studying the same forests ....since 1943," states Burnett.

Through an accident of weather and geography, Puerto Rico has perhaps the best research on the interaction between hurricanes and tropical forests in the Western Hemisphere.

"The forest is impatient to reinvent itself"

What Dr. Ariel Lugo, the 74-year-old director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and other scientists learned after Hugo defoliated the hills "is that regrowth here was two to three times as robust and productive as a normal healthy forest."

The trees race upward to regain their choice positions in the canopy and photosynthesize the sunlight. The tallest are the victors.

It took the forest three to four years to recover after Hugo, and it probably will for Maria, too.

Burnett asks Lugo what he has to say to residents who are anxious to see the island become green again.

"Unfortunately, it's the same thing they are being told when they are waiting for gas, food and water," Lugo replies. "Be patient."

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Published on Sunday, October 1, 2017 in NPR
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