In the Aftermath of Maria, NEON Puerto Rico Stands Strong

February 2018

Every NEON domain has its share of challenges. But none have faced greater adversity than Domain 04, Atlantic Neotropical in Puerto Rico.

When Hurricane Maria hit the island in September of 2017, the field sites were completely constructed and final instrument validation was underway. Maria washed much of this work away. In the months since the storm, Field Operations Manager Yamil Toro and his field staff have been working to repair the damage and bring the field sites back to operations. This work has been conducted in the midst of an island-wide humanitarian and infrastructure crisis that has hit many of them personally as well.

D04, the Atlantic Neotropical Domain, includes terrestrial sites in Guanica Forest (GUAN) and Lajas Experimental Station (LAJA) and aquatic sites at Rio Cupeyes (CUPE) and Rio Guilarte (GUIL). The island is home to a number of distinct ecosystems and many plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world, some of them now endangered or threatened. Guanica Forest is considered to be the most pristine dry tropical forest in the world. Lajas Experimental Station is in the same eco-climate zone, but is located on agricultural land.

These field sites are providing valuable data to help scientists study the health of these rare ecosystems. NEON field teams must work carefully so they do not disturb rare and endangered species such as the Puerto Rican Nightjar and the Puerto Rican Crested Toad. The Guanica Forest also hosts seven species of endangered plants.

Battelle employs 12 field ecologists, six full time. Toro says his team has remained fully committed to the NEON project even while handling tough personal circumstances. Maria wiped out the entire power grid in Puerto Rico, leaving the whole island without power. As of January 2018, large portions of the population remain without electricity; power is not expected to be restored to the central parts of the island until sometime this summer. The NEON field sites, along with the rest of the island, continue to face significant challenges due to damage to infrastructure and communication systems.

Toro spent two days cutting a path through the wreckage around his house with a chainsaw. When electricity and phone service were restored to the Puerto Rico office, many of the field ecologists relied on the site for hot showers and communication with the outside world. Battelle sent several pallets of supplies and materials to the field teams, including 10 generators, four pallets of food and other supplies. Toro says, “During Maria, we had great support from Battelle. Even without communication and with interrupted shipping, they were able to get us what we needed.”

Thanks to the dedication of Battelle's field team in Puerto Rico, field sampling resumed at the terrestrial sites just 14 days after Maria struck. They had to clear more than 16 miles of trails to get the sampling programs back up and running. Toro says, “I have a terrific team of people working here. Even with everything they were going through personally, I had people show up here the day after the hurricane to make sure that the station was not looted and get things back up and running as quickly as possible.”

Currently, the terrestrial sampling programs are fully operational. Sensors for the flux towers are undergoing calibration.

In addition to restoring the field sites, the team is at work gathering data to shed light on the ecological impact of Maria. This includes a study of the geomorphology of the rivers at CUPE and GUIL to determine how the riverbank was changed by the hurricane. In addition, they are collecting measurements of vegetation structure on the sampling plots. They have some pre-hurricane data for comparison.

The day before Maria landed, field staff retracted tower booms to prevent damage to sensors, and power was disconnected to prevent potential power surges from damaging the system due to expected wind speeds of over 135 mph. Despite the strong winds of Hurricane Maria, both towers survived without major damage. The towers themselves are built for hurricane strength winds and will continue to followed the best practice of collecting data during storms with predicted winds up to 90 mph.

“Maria has been a real-life test for the NEON project,” says Toro. “I can’t say enough about our field team. They have shown just how resilient they are and how dedicated they are to what we are doing here.”

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