Four years after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s 28,000-acre national rainforest is still on the road to recovery.
In 2017, Category 5 Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico just two weeks after Hurricane Irma, destroying homes, wiping out power grids, uprooting millions of trees across the island territory, and claiming roughly 3,000 victims. The subsequent damage caused Puerto Rico’s Forest Services to restrict public access to El Yunque for repairs and restoration work. As the area gradually reopened during a three-year recovery process, new and returning visitors found a decimated forest canopy ravaged by natural disaster.
An estimated 30 percent of the forest’s trees were either badly damaged or entirely destroyed, leaving behind bare hillsides and brittle snags where lush foliage once enveloped the canopy above. The already critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot native to El Yunque National Forest also lost 95 percent of its population in the destructive wake of Hurricane Maria. The widespread toll of the back-to-back hurricanes resulted in a desolate ecosystem in need of substantial restoration.
Since September 2017, scientists, biologists, engineers, and hundreds of volunteers have implemented new rehabilitation strategies and projects to restore and to protect the vibrant beauty of Puerto Rico’s treasured rainforest. Teams of volunteers from the United States joined locals just days after the hurricane to clear underbrush blocking access to major roads and trails throughout the forest. Ecological foundations like Arbor Day quickly introduced reforestation techniques and reconstructed on-site greenhouses that propagated seedlings also destroyed in the storm. Ongoing efforts from conservationists working within the national forest seek to protect native wildlife and to promote the reproduction of endangered species.
A rare silver lining of Hurricane Maria’s damage provided scientists with a clean slate to study the natural landscape while stripped bare of thousands of its trees. By researching its growth and biodiversity from the ground up, biologists are better equipped to protect the forest from future disasters and to respond to damage more efficiently with proper reforestation methods specific to El Yunque’s ecosystem. With major research underway and new greenery already peeking through the forest’s understory, the coming decades will see a significant resurgence of life within El Yunque.
Though some mountainous areas in El Yunque may take between 50 and 100 years to fully recover, pioneer species in other regions of the forest embody the resilience of the landscape and its quick adaptation. As locals continue to rebuild their communities and to heal from the collective sorrow Hurricane Maria left behind, their natural surroundings mend alongside them in symbiotic harmony. With new legal protections also in place, Puerto Rico hopes to expand its natural land preservations to reach roughly one third of the island by 2033.
The future of El Yunque is dependent on volunteer work from native Puerto Ricans and from international visitors alike who speed along a lengthy reforestation process and kickstart new research projects focused on extensive recovery and future damage control. As El Yunque’s ecosystem slowly rejuvenates, Puerto Rico finds new strength in its four-year recovery after Hurricane Maria, though much work remains for the island to rebound from such serious damage. For more information on volunteering in El Yunque recovery efforts, check out the El Yunque Forest Service website or consider donating to the forest’s Stewardship Fund here.