PUERTO RICO — In September 2017, the Caribbean was battered by the combined force of two massive hurricanes; first came Irma, followed two weeks later by Maria. The International Institute of Tropical Forestry began post-hurricane work within days of Hurricane Irma, which made landfall on Sept. 6. Hurricane Maria affected the island on Sept. 20 and IITF began post-Maria work on September 23, 2017.
Forest Service employees are still conducting research and outreach activities at different levels. These questions address a range of topics, from site- or ecosystem-specific effects, to responses to the broader impacts to the forest. Institute employees are working directly with government officials from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands supporting efforts to restore and recover state and private forests. We are conducting damage assessments of rural and urban forests to obtain data on management and reforestation needs as well as determine tree species recommended for planting and quantities. We are also developing educational strategies to increase the technical capacity of our collaborators and partners. Forest Service nursery specialists are working with public and private nurseries to advise on rebuilding propagation facilities, native species germination protocols, seed banks, and provide training.
The efforts required to bring back such a large area after a massive atmospheric event like Hurricane Maria are significant. IITF is working hard to help Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in these recovery efforts.
Following on the efforts listed in the first part of this article, here are the remainder research and development projects and efforts currently underway in the area:
Assessing the role of wind intensity and topography on forest (Puerto Rico and the USVI): IITF is assessing the geographical pattern of vegetation damage from the hurricane with respect to the land cover, topographical characteristics and hurricane wind speed and direction. Continuous wind speed and direction for the duration of the hurricane have been recreated using best forecast models from the National Hurricane Data Center. These continuous wind fields are being used to estimate the kinetic energy dissipated to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The damage in relation to the energy input is being related to land modulation by anthropologically effected characteristics (forest fragmentation, forest percentage) and innate characteristics (slope, aspect, landform). This gives insight into how and why landscapes are more vulnerable to hurricane damage.
Social impacts — Forest and agricultural lands (Puerto Rico and USVI): The institute plans to assess post-hurricane effects on agriculture, forestry and rural communities through surveys. IITF is seeking emergency processing and approval of this new information collection by the Office of Management and Budget. With OMB approval, IITF published an announcement of this work in the Federal Register last week, kicking off a 30-day comment period. Responses to this request are expected for emergency processing and approval from OMB by mid-May 2018 and work on the project will start soon thereafter.
USDA Caribbean Climate Hub Assessments (Puerto Rico and USVI): IITF has been developing an assessment of hurricane effects on forestry and agriculture to better understand what was most/least vulnerable to the hurricanes and subsequent recovery conditions within different sectors, including coffee, dairy, plantains and bananas, fruit crops, agroforestry operations, managed forests, and supporting sectors such as communications, energy and transportation. Assessments will be made through surveys, focal group interviews, geospatial analyses and workshops to solicit stakeholder input. The goal is to provide syntheses from lessons learned to improve information and program delivery that will better prepare IITF to handle the aftermath of future extreme climate events.
Reforestation Planning (Puerto Rico and USVI): IITF will conduct workshops and coordinate working groups to collect, synthesize and deliver reforestation options relevant to urban forestry, working lands, conservation areas, backyard plantings and nurseries in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Planned outcomes include spatially explicit information on options and obstacles within relevant sectors related to ecosystem services, seed and tree sources, planting and management guidelines and expected challenges.
Outreach — Adaptation to extreme climate events (Puerto Rico and USVI): IITF integrated lessons learned from Hurricanes Maria and Irma into a workshop series communicating climate adaptation best practices. The series convenes farmers, foresters, agronomists and extension agents in demonstrations of good climate adaptation practices and produces accompanying workbooks and videos to share the information widely. We have conducted three of five planned workshops since Hurricane Maria.
Timber salvage (Puerto Rico and USVI): IITF organized a log salvage initiative to take advantage of all of the downed timber from the recent hurricanes, promote the wood products industry in Puerto Rico and build capacity to better respond to future storms so that downed wood is utilized in ways that promote carbon storage, soil health and rural economic development.