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Update on Puerto Rico: A month after Maria

PUERTO RICO — It has been a month since that fateful day when hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, leaving destruction and devastation in its wake. And, although many have volunteered to help in the recovery efforts, the amount of damage was so extreme that the road to recovery, although making steady progress, has been slow moving. Additionally, rains have continued on and off throughout the island over the last couple of weeks, causing flash flooding and further damage in already battered areas, as well as slowing down any ongoing recovery efforts.

As of right now, only 65 percent of the island’s population has access to running water and 15 percent has access to electricity on a semi-regular basis. Communications remain spotty throughout the island, and access to items such as potable water, food, gas, medicine and other necessities remain somewhat inconsistent as a whole.

The Forest Service remains unwavering in our commitment to ensuring the prompt and proper recovery of all of our employees in Puerto Rico, their friends, family, and the island as a whole. This week, members of our Employee Assistance Program travelled to the island and provided one on one assistance to all our employees there. With the continued lapse in communications and access to reliable internet connections, having the EAP folks present provided some level of relief in getting the assistance all Puerto Rico FS personnel.

Despite the significant number of challenges to operations in Puerto Rico, personnel on the El Yunque National Forest began conducting their initial assessments of Hurricane Maria’s impact on natural resources and infrastructure. Access through the forest is severely limited due to roads clogged with debris, downed trees, and landslides. While the extent of the damage to the forest remains unknown, the forest has suffered mass defoliation and an unknown number of downed trees. Facilities throughout the forest have no electricity (except through gas-powered generators) or running water. 

Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico’s tourism industry remains a challenge for concessioners and outfitters operating at the El Yunque National Forest. In an effort to assist those individuals, who depend on the forest’s recreational resources for their livelihood, concessioner fees will be indefinitely waived until the forest reopens to recreationists.

The health and well-being of Forest Service employees in Puerto Rico remain two of the agency’s top concerns. The Forest Service continues to provide support to its personnel in Puerto Rico in the form of much-needed supplies, technical assistance and stress management. Ongoing issues for employee include a lack of electricity and access to running water in their homes. A Critical Incident Stress Management team continues to operate in Puerto Rico to assist employees and to provide information on the services available through the Employee Assistance Program.

Forest personnel continue to conduct recovery operations through the Catalina administrative building, which received significant flood damage from Hurricane Maria. The potential impacts to employee health prompted the Regional Office to secure an industry hygienist to conduct environmental assessments of impacted facilities and determine if they pose a risk to employee health.

An agency-ordered Type-3 Incident Command Team arrived this week to assist the El Yunque National Forest with command and control of clean-up efforts and debris removal. The ICT will help manage the more than 100 local temporary hires, contractors and partner employees who are participating in the recovery effort. In addition, a National Incident Management Organization team is scheduled to arrive in Puerto Rico today to assist forest leadership prepare a continuity of operations plan, an internal communications plan and a long-term recovery strategy.

An Emergency Services Function-ordered Pennsylvania Type 3 Incident Management Team is currently operating a federal staging area in Charleston, South Carolina, in support of missions in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Even with all these ongoing effort, there is still room to get involved. You can immediately contribute assistance to fellow citizens through a number of organizations; please visit the Government of Puerto Rico’s page for more information.

As recovery progresses there will be other ways to lend your support. Locally, several units have been involved in sending goods and necessities to the island. We will provide updates as more information becomes available.