Supporting recovery from the 2017 hurricane season
Interagency collaboration supported recovery efforts after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
During the 2017 hurricane season, hurricanes Irma and Maria, two of the most significant storms to affect Florida and the U.S. Caribbean in recent history, caused catastrophic damage that affected ecosystems, livelihoods, and economic stability throughout the region. USGCRP provided one venue for facilitating interagency efforts—involving USDA, DOE, NASA, NSF, DOI, and FEMA—that are tracking storm damage and recovery in forests and the agricultural sector and supporting recovery and resilience-building efforts in affected communities.
The USDA Forest Service (USDA-FS) and the USDA Caribbean Climate Hub, headquartered in San Juan, Puerto Rico, began post-hurricane work within days of the storms, initiating research activities to aid in recovery efforts and develop lessons learned from the storm impacts and recovery that can inform future responses. Damage assessments of rural and urban forests are being conducted to obtain information on management and reforestation needs, including salvage opportunities for downed trees. To better understand how and why some landscapes are more vulnerable to hurricane damage than others, scientists are assessing how land characteristics such as topography affected vegetation damage. USDA is also evaluating the vulnerability of agricultural operations in Puerto Rico to hurricanes, as well as the vulnerability of sectors such as communications, energy, and transportation that support agribusinesses; these assessments are being used to improve the delivery of information and programs to reduce risks from future extreme events. USDA, NSF, and university partners are also supporting hurricane recovery and resilience-building efforts in urban communities, including opportunities for governmental and community leaders, practitioners, and academics to reflect on lessons learned from these storms and to identify innovative solutions to promote resilience—such as community hubs that use data and visualization technologies to support and connect communities in addressing local issues.
In addition to direct effects on livelihoods, extreme events can degrade important ecosystem services. Mangrove forests in both Puerto Rico and Florida affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria serve as protective barriers to storm surge. Tropical forests and mangrove forests damaged by the storms also have high rates of carbon exchange with the atmosphere and very high carbon sequestration potential that can be affected by ecosystem disruptions. The hurricanes affected areas that had recently been surveyed via NASA Goddard’s Lidar, Hyperspectral, and Thermal Airborne Imager (G-LiHT), which creates 3-D high-resolution maps of forested areas—allowing for direct observation of the effects of storm damage on these ecosystems and their recovery. Pre-hurricane flights, conducted in spring 2017 by NASA Goddard through an award from DOE and NGEE-Tropics, collected data over about 12% of the island. After the storms, researchers conducted repeat flights between November 2017 and May 2018, with support from DOI and FEMA, based on interactions initiated through USGCRP’s Carbon Cycle Interagency Working Group. USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, NASA, and DOE provided support for work on the ground, field validation of remote sensing observations, and analysis of results.
Preliminary evidence shows that five months after Hurricane Maria, more than half of the trees in Puerto Rican rainforests are damaged or were downed and 60% of protective coastal mangroves in Florida were destroyed. Some areas and species are recovering faster than others; for instance, palm trees in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest are taking advantage of sunlight provided by an open canopy. When fully analyzed, observations from this multi-agency effort will provide an unprecedented picture of the damage and initial recovery from these two events and help improve understanding of how hurricanes change forest ecosystems. Such assessments can inform planning for recovery and rehabilitation of affected lands and preparation for future events.
1 Ramsayer, Kate. “NASA mapping hurricane damage to Everglades, Puerto Rico forests.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2018/nasa-mapping-hurricane-damage-to-everglades-puerto-forests.
2 Reiny, Samson. “Five ways hurricanes have affected Puerto Rico’s forests.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration. https://blogs.nasa.gov/earthexpeditions/2018/05/23/five-ways-hurricanes-have-affected-puerto-ricos-forests/.