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After Hurricane's Wrath, Puerto Rico's Green Forests Turn Bare Brown

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Dr. Ariel Lugo looks at a damaged tree on the grounds of the University of Puerto Rico's Botanical Gardens. "You asked me who got defoliated, everyone did," Lugo says about the bare trees.

A laborer named Angel Ramos used to gather mangos and avocados that grew wild in the hills above the city of Cayey, in Puerto Rico's east. The woods were verdant, they smelled of fecundity — and made him feel part of creation.

Then the hurricane came.

"I climbed up to see what the mountain looks like. Oh, the sadness," Ramos says. "I see the uprooted trees. The naked limbs. It makes you want to cry when you to see it. How it's destroyed. It is torturous to look at."

One of the most dramatic sights left by Hurricane Maria is the denuding of Puerto Rico. The lush forests for which this island is famous were stripped bare by the cyclone.

The sight is distressing. Puerto Rico's trees are spectacular — or at least they used to be.

You could have seen the African tulip tree, with its fiery orange-red, cup-shaped flowers. Or majestic ceiba trees, or giant ficus trees with their woody vines.

Now, much of the island's vegetation has been obliterated.

"The wind was so strong, most leaves could not stay on the trees," says Dr. Ariel Lugo, the 74-year-old director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. Lugo has been studying Puerto Rican forests, and the effects of hurricanes, for 54 years.

"You asked me who got defoliated, everyone did," he says about the bare trees.

We stand on a hill, in a thousand-acre nature preserve in the heart of San Juan, looking south. We clearly see the high-rises and shopping centers and sports stadiums.

"Normally you don't see the city," he says. "Normally the city doesn't see us. After a hurricane, everything gets exposed."

Through an accident of weather and geography, Puerto Rico has perhaps the best research on the interaction between hurricanes and tropical forests in the Western Hemisphere.

In 1989, Hurricane Hugo passed over the eastern third of the island as a strong Category 3. As it happens, scientists had been studying the same forests that were lashed by Hugo since 1943.

What Ariel Lugo and other scientists learned is that regrowth here was two to three times as robust and productive as a normal healthy forest.

The trees race upward to regain their choice positions in the canopy and photosynthesize the sunlight. The tallest are the victors.

It took the forest three to four years to recover after Hugo, and it probably will for Maria, too.

"Every Puerto Rican is aware that this island is looking different," Lugo says. "And everybody wants the green island because that's what we love and that's what we're used to."

He tells people the forests will return — but it will take time.

"This is going to come back, but we have to be patient. But it's not going to be long," he says.

Since the defoliation of Puerto Rico, the natural world has been topsy-turvy. Bees are buzzing around crazily looking for pollen in flowers that were blown away. Confused birds — from the lizard cuckoo, to the pearly-eyed thrasher, to the endangered Puerto Rican parrot — have lost their nests and favorite perches.

Anole lizards that would camouflage themselves in the foliage are now exposed to passing hawks.

Yet, the forest is impatient to reinvent itself.

Lugo stands admiringly under a huge ceiba tree on the institute's lawn. The ceiba was decapitated by the storm's destructive winds. But nine days later, you can see green sprouting from the tips of intact branches.

"You see this proliferation of brand new leaves that are already coming out," he says. "And it's amazing to us because it just demonstrate[s] how each species has his own way of coming back."

NPR's James Doubek adapted this story for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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