Six Rivers NF Sends Employees To Assist In Hurricane Relief

  • By Peggi Lawrence, Public Affairs Specialist, Six Rivers National Forest
The view from the Yokahu Tower on Puerto Rico. The view from the Yokahu Tower on Puerto Rico. Boats strewn about after a hurricane came through. Homes destroyed by a hurricane passing through.

In the aftermath of Hurricane’s Irma, and two weeks later, Maria’s devastation on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands’ St. John, between the 6th and 20th of September 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service reached out for assistance and the Six Rivers National Forest of the Pacific Southwest Region responded with personnel for recovery operations.

In November, Six Rivers’ Gasquet Ranger District and Smith River National Recreation Area Recreation Specialist Doug Winn traveled to St. John to assist the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center as a single-resource facilities unit leader. Irma whipped up sustained winds estimated at 270 mph. Power on the island was low to intermittent. The area inside and surrounding the park were badly damaged and in some places unsafe infrastructure with inaccessible roads, damaged trees and downed power lines.

Winn and his team worked on recovering park buildings, clearing beaches and removing debris from coral reefs. While assisting the park staff to get their recreational facilities back to some sort of normalcy he saw destroyed homes and businesses, displaced vessels – sailboats, fishing boats and other watercraft that needed to be removed. When Winn left a little over a month later power was almost fully restored and the area had benefitted from recovery team efforts.

“The people there are the most amazing folks I have ever met. You would meet them on the street and they have lost everything and you ask them, ‘how are you?’ and they would reply, ‘I be blessed.’ It certainly was a humbling experience for me.”~Doug Winn, Recreation Specialist

In December, the forest supervisor’s office, located in Eureka, California, dispatched budget analyst, Lee Piper, as part of a team to assist the staff of the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico with financial management and tracking for roads, trails repair and cleanup work. Piper’s specialty is incident cost data management. In addition to Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars, there was U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funding and Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads dollars.

The damage around the island was apparent; the team worked out of a hotel ballroom on generator power. During the weeks Piper and his team were getting a handle on things they were given a chance for a rare field trip. Outfitted with an interpreter the team was escorted through the EYNF to one of its main attractions, the 1575-foot Yokahu Observation Tower. According to legend, the original people of the island believed that the good god “Yuquiyu” (Yokahu) had a throne at the top of the mountain and protected the people from the bad god “Jurican” who causes chaos, like the recent hurricanes.

“From the top of the tower it was a cloudless, beautiful day, and you could see forever, including the storm clouds over the Atlantic Ocean,” said Piper.

To break up their 14-hour work days the recovery team wanted to see the parrot aviary, massive flight cages managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, but since it was nesting season the aviary was closed to visitors. However, they learned there were only an estimated 85 Puerto Rican parrots remaining in the wild; there were 300 in the aviary. Thirty parrots in the wild had tracking collars but unfortunately most of the birds didn’t make it through the storms after finding the location devices. Due to the hurricane’s stripping of the foliage, fruit and nuts weren’t available in the highlands. Hopes rested on many of the parrots finding sanctuary in the lowlands and safe from predators like hawks.

Despite the hurricane’s adverse effects on the forest and wildlife and how the people there “have been without water and power for months, many had blue tarps covering their damaged roofs,” reported Piper, he felt the recovery efforts by federal agencies and contracted teams were making a positive impact on the land and the Puerto Ricans.

“Everyone was so friendly and welcoming,” said Piper. “I found the work interesting and exciting, and it was an honor and privilege to serve. The people were the warmest, nicest people you could meet and they were glad the team was there to help.”