Hurricane Maria obliterated El Yunque Rain Forest on Puerto Rico, raising questions about whether it will be able to recover. Photo: Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo / The New York Times

By Luis Ferré-Sadurní
11 October 2017

LUQUILLO, Puerto Rico (The New York Times) – When you looked up, you could once see nothing but the lush, emerald canopy of tabonuco and sierra palm trees covering El Yunque National Forest.

That was before Hurricane Maria obliterated the only tropical rain forest in the United States forest system. Left behind was a scene so bare that on a recent visit, it was possible to see the concrete skyline of San Juan about 30 miles west — a previously unimaginable sight.

El Yunque, pronounced Jun-kay, has been an enormous source of pride in Puerto Rico and one of the main drivers of the island’s tourism industry. The 28,000-acre forest on the eastern part of the island has over 240 species of trees; 23 of those are found nowhere else. Over 50 bird species live among the forest’s crags and waterfalls.

But sunlight now reaches cavities of the forest that have not felt a ray of light in decades, bringing with it a scorching heat.

“Hurricane Maria was like a shock to the system,” said Grizelle González, a project leader at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, part of United States Department of Agriculture. “The whole forest is completely defoliated.”

The hardest hit areas at the top of the forest “might take a century to recover,” Ms. González, who has worked at El Yunque for 17 years, said.

Tree trunks that still stood were left brown, stripped of their leaves and dark-green mosses. Landslides have scattered the forest with mounds of displaced soil and boulders.

The billions of gallons of water that rain every year on the eight major rivers that originate here supply 20 percent of the drinkable water in Puerto Rico.

“What’s going to happen if the ecosystem has less capacity to capture that water, get it into the streams, and into the municipal water systems?” Sharon Wallace, the forest supervisor for El Yunque, said. [more]

Another Victim of Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico’s Treasured Rainforest

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