Devastation of Hurricane Maria presents setbacks, new opportunities for UConn

Ducks perch on the branch of a tree next to a home destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. President Donald Trump lashed out at hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico on Thursday, insisting in tweets that the federal government can’t keep sending help “forever” and suggesting the U.S. territory was to blame for its financial struggles. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Ducks perch on the branch of a tree next to a home destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. President Donald Trump lashed out at hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico on Thursday, insisting in tweets that the federal government can’t keep sending help “forever” and suggesting the U.S. territory was to blame for its financial struggles. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

An environmental science and engineering research team from the University of Connecticut has submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to return to Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

The ecosystems in the Luquillo Mountains of Puerto Rico have been researched for over 35 years, but when a hurricane hits, the team visits the site as soon as they can, said Michael Willig, a professor and director at the UConn Environmental Science and Engineering Center.

“It’s sort of like going to the doctor every year for your annual check up… when you get sick, you go to the doctor right away,” Willig said.

Visiting the forest in Puerto Rico is a good opportunity to study the effects of climate change because it is located on a mountain, said Steven Presley, a post-doctorate working with the UConn research team. Effects of climate change will be seen in the mountains before it is seen in valleys, Presley said.

“Down (in Puerto Rico) we get to study episodic disturbances… but we also get to study the long-term effects of a very gradual disturbance and how climate change is affecting the responses of the plants and animals,” Presley said.

Willig’s team studies the adaptations of snails and their role in the ecosystem, Willig said.

The research site is shared by other researchers from the University of Puerto Rico, the University of California, the University of Georgia, the Florida International University and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, which is a part of USDA Forest Service, Willig said. These teams study plants, insects, birds and other animals, Willig said.

While Maria has created a great opportunity to study how quickly the plants and animals recover, it has also stalled research, said Jason Lech, a UConn doctoral student on Willig’s team. Part of the roof on the research building was torn off and the team was only recently able to order gas for a generator after losing power during the storm, Lech said.

“What’s cool about the science that’s happening down there, is it’s very long term… (however,) to have a major disruption where you can’t collect anything can be a bad thing,” Lech said.

While nobody from UConn was in Puerto Rico during the storm, researchers from the other universities were there. Communication with the research team was lost during the first week or two after the storm, and everyone was anxious to find out what had happened. However, nobody was hurt, Willig said.

“The group of us that do this project were scrambling to try to find out who was there, who’s heard from who,” Willig said. “We never anticipated this breadth of damage.”

While storms occur in Puerto Rico about every 60 years, Maria hit sooner and harder than expected, possibly due to changing climate conditions, Presley said. Climate change is not a new thing and it has happened to the planet since the beginning of time, but it is happening at a quicker rate than even before, Presley said.

“This is not one of the warmest periods in the world’s history, it’s just warm compared to what it has been recently, and probably to what it should be right now, for the world to be able to support seven billion people,” Presley said.

There is evidence that climate change is contributing to the severity of natural disasters, Willig said.

“We have a lot of suggestions that over the last decade the frequency of severe hurricanes has increased (and) the intensity and number of wildfires has increased,” Willig said. “This is all consistent with the theory that climate change is happening and would cause those things to happen.”


Nicholas Hampton is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at nicholas.hampton@uconn.edu.