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Seeds of a Storm : A Puerto Rican Tropical Rain Forest Sprouts New Life in the Wake of Hurricane Hugo

Charles Hillinger's America


CARIBBEAN NATIONAL FOREST, Puerto Rico — When Hurricane Hugo ripped through this tropical rain forest last September, much of its flora and fauna perished. But the storm set the stage for some surprising reincarnations.

"Plants and trees we haven't seen for years are suddenly shooting up," said Aeril Lugo, 47, director of the U.S. Forest Service's Institute of Tropical Forestry here.

With winds as high as 212 m.p.h., Hugo destroyed much of the forest's dense canopy, exposing some parts of the forest floor to sunlight for the first time in decades.

"As a result," said Lugo, "seeds of plants and trees that need the sun have germinated and are growing. . . . Thanks to the hurricane, we are seeing a far richer diversity of (plant) species."

Animal species may not have fared so well. Ornithologists familiar with the great variety of birds in Puerto Rico, many unique to the island, are especially concerned about the hurricane's impact on the future of the colorful Puerto Rican parrot.

"There were two flocks of the parrots before the hurricane, one a captive flock numbering 51 and the other 46 parrots in the wild," said Leon Huffaker, 35, recreation and lands officer for the Caribbean National Forest.

While the captive flock was well protected by the World War II bunker in which it was housed, 20 of the 46 wild parrots are missing and feared lost in the storm.

The Puerto Rican parrot has a little red stripe between beak and forehead that sets it apart from a similar parrot in the Dominican Republic. By the early 1970s, there were only 17 such parrots left on earth.

Some of the gains made in the parrot population were erased by the hurricane, but through the efforts of ornithologists and other concerned people, more Puerto Rican parrots still exist today than 20 years ago, said Huffaker, a native of Hacienda Heights, Calif.

Ten species of rare trees and plants that had vanished from the forest over the past 40 years have returned in Hugo's wake. "In that sense," said Lugo, "the hurricane that caused an estimated $5.2 million damage to the forest has also rejuvenated the forest. It's nature's way."

The rain forest resounds with a symphony of singing, chirping and whistling birds, and the voices of inchlong tree frogs that croak their names: "coqui, coqui, coqui."

Wildlife counts are down in the forest since the hurricane, but the animal communities are resilient, said Lugo, who said their numbers already are bouncing back.

A monthlong drought after Hugo was more threatening to the coqui frogs, for example, than the hurricane itself. Many of the frogs perished from lack of moisture. But when the rains returned, so did the noisy coqui populations.

The forest was closed to the public for four months after Hurricane Hugo. Much of the main road, Highway 191, leading into the forest was blocked by trees or washed away by landslides and floods. High winds blew off the roof of the U.S. Forest Service headquarters.

Today, half the 25-mile trail system remains closed by fallen trees and other debris. But many downed trees, shrubs, and plants still lie where Hugo left them. The only trees being taken from the forest are those covering roads, trails or buildings.

This is the only national forest in Puerto Rico. Residents call it El Yunque (Jun-kay), the name of the most prominent peak in the park, 3,281-foot-high El Yunque.

The name El Yunque comes from an Indian word meaning land of white clouds. It rains in the mountainous forest nearly every day. And depending on the elevation, annual rainfall varies from 80 to 200 inches. Rain clouds embrace many of El Yunque's peaks on any day of the year.

Thousands of islanders come here every week to enjoy the relatively cool temperatures, to marvel at the beauty of the lush vegetation, to hike the forest's trails, to picnic, to catch glimpses of wild birds and animals.

The forest is home to 253 native tree species, 23 that grow nowhere else in the world. It covers 28,000 acres and has been the subject of serious study by the Institute staff for more than half a century.

But what forest-watchers have learned in the aftermath of last fall's hurricane may be the forest's most dramatic lesson.

Although 15% of all the trees in the forest have been lost, said Lugo, "there is nothing for us to reforest. Nature has taken over. The forest is already replanting itself, doing a far better job than we could."

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