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Forest Service employees in Puerto Rico begin steps to recovery

PUERTO RICO — Employees of El Yunque National Forest began returning to work last week after enduring the onslaught of Hurricane Maria, which passed diagonally over Puerto Rico as a strong Category 4 hurricane Sept. 20.

El Yunque National Forest was still in the process of recovering from Hurricane Irma when Hurricane Maria arrived, bringing with it sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and over 30 inches of rain to some areas, which resulted in additional damage from landslides, saturated soils, more downed trees and mass defoliation.

Photo: Trees downed in front of El Yunque National Forest sign. Sign has closed sign hung across it.
The entrance to El Yunque National Forest in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The forest is still closed as recovery efforts continue. Forest Service photo by Tana Wood.

Leaders at El Yunque National Forest and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry have accounted for all Forest Service personnel based in Puerto Rico, all of whom are safe and uninjured. In the aftermath of the storm, employees and their families continue to struggle with power outages, limited communications, and difficulties accessing fuel, cash and running water.

Although the forest remains closed to the public until further notice, employees who are able to return to work will begin removing debris and cleaning up administrative sites to secure a safe place for recovery operations. They will then begin to assess the impacts on natural resources and infrastructure.

The Forest Service has been assisting Federal Emergency Management Agency response efforts in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. Virgin Islands by providing personnel and resources to assist with distribution of supplies, saw crews to clear roads, law enforcement and coordination of access to communication sites on the forest.

“Thankfully, all Forest Service employees and their families are accounted for and safe after Hurricanes Irma and Maria," El Yunque National Forest Supervisor Sharon Wallace said. “Our next steps will begin to assess damages to the forest and focus on priority restoration efforts that best serve our local communities. Our Forest Service employees are anxious to help the people of Puerto Rico recover."

Photo: People in hard hats stand in semicircle around man giving briefing. Off to one side, a map is spread on a counter.
El Yunque National Forest employees have returned to work. Forest Service photos.


Photo: A line of people in safety gear. Some carry chainsaws, others gallons of gasoline or other supplies.
El Yunque employees are ready to help their communities. Forest Service photo.