Hurricane Maria's Aftermath: Ecological Disaster Continues

Hurricane Maria's Aftermath: Ecological Disaster Continues
••• Mario Tama/Getty Images News/GettyImages

It's been almost two years since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other parts of the Caribbean. The Category 5 storm was the strongest hurricane that Puerto Rico experienced in the last 80 years. It knocked out power, leveled homes, destroyed roads and left a lasting impact on the environment. Today, the people and areas affected by Hurricane Maria continue to suffer.

Hurricane Maria's Devastation

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in the Caribbean. It's estimated that 2,975 to 4,645 people died in Puerto Rico, according to The Guardian. CNN reports that the Category 5 hurricane caused $90 billion in damage. It caused power outages that lasted for months and created serious food and water shortages. The storm also washed out roads, bridges and homes. The flooding that followed caused additional damage and landslides. Not only was Hurricane Maria a devastating event to humans, it also caused considerable destruction to the ecosystems.

40,000 Landslides

The U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Puerto Rico found that Hurricane Maria caused 40,000 landslides in Puerto Rico. Heavy rainfall and flooding saturated the soil, which led to the soil and rocks sliding down the hills and destroying large areas of the island. Landslides damaged homes, blocked roads and made recovery even more difficult for residents.

Changing Forests

The National Science Foundation (NSF) studied the impact of dead and broken trees after Hurricane Maria. Although most palm trees survived in Puerto Rico, other species suffered enormous damage because of the storm. Scientists believe that Hurricane Maria killed two times more trees than other storms in the past. The devastation of hardwoods means that palm trees may be able to take over the forests and change the landscape. This will also have an impact on the type of wildlife that lives in the forests.

Shortly after the storm, researchers estimated that Hurricane Maria destroyed 30 percent of the trees in Puerto Rico. Dead and broken trees fell on power lines and homes. They blocked roads and bridges, which created additional obstacles. Some of the trees that survived lost their foliage as the powerful storms ripped the leaves off.

Today, researchers believe that 30 million trees died in Puerto Rico. Since trees capture carbon dioxide (CO2), their loss means that the CO2 will not be trapped and will stay in the atmosphere. In addition, 5.75 million tons of carbon could be released as the trees continue to decay.

Nitrate in the Water

Nitrate is an inorganic compound that consists of nitrogen and oxygen. It exists in both natural and synthetic forms. For example, you can find nitrate in fertilizers. After Hurricane Maria, researchers noticed that the amount of nitrate in streams increased because of flooding, storm damage and runoff. In Puerto Rico, the devastation to the forests also caused an increase of nitrate in the water.

Nitrate in drinking water poses a serious health risk because it can affect how the blood carries oxygen. It can cause methemoglobinemia or blue baby syndrome in infants, and health problems including nausea, headaches, fast heart rate and stomach cramps, in adults.

Too much nitrate in an ecosystem can also lead to algal blooms and poor water quality that affects fish and other species. Algal blooms can lower oxygen levels in the water and kill fish. Researchers worry that high nitrate levels may eventually cause coastal dead zones.

Poor Air and Water Quality

Nitrates aren't the only problem after Hurricane Maria. Water shortages forced many people to harvest rainwater and use other sources that had the potential to be contaminated with bacteria and chemicals. Flooding near Superfund sites in Puerto Rico may have released dangerous chemicals like lead into the drinking water. Unfortunately, due to extensive power outages, shortages of supplies and other problems it has been difficult to track the full impact of the storm on water quality.

Flooding and rainfall created the perfect conditions for mold to grow in homes after the hurricane. Meanwhile, power outages forced people to rely on generators that made fumes. The poor air quality in people's homes due to these conditions has lead to spikes in asthma and respiratory health cases. AP reports that mold, pollen and pollution have become bigger problems.

Wildlife Losses

Researchers have struggled to calculate the loss of wildlife in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Rain, floods, winds and pollution killed many animals, but it's difficult to find exact numbers. As the hurricane destroyed natural habitats and wiped out food supplies on the islands in the Caribbean, animals had no opportunity to flee the affected areas.

One major population harmed by storms is actually bats – which could have huge repercussions. Bats help disperse seeds, and their declining population could cause an annual loss of $25 million to agriculture industry. And they eat tons of mosquitoes every year, meaning that those insects (which carry harmful diseases like Zika) could cause a bigger health dilemma.

Fishing is an important segment of the Caribbean's economy. In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria cost the fishing industry up to $3.8 million. There were shortages of fish, pollution and water problems. Coral reefs also suffered as sedimentation increased.

The loss or decline of native birds, butterflies and other species has created a vacuum that invasive, non-native wildlife is filling quickly. For instance, the crested buzzer, a native bird in Puerto Rico, appears to have disappeared after the storms. Animals that survived have been forced to migrate to different parts of the islands, which could affect breeding and long-term survival.

Slow Recovery

The recovery after Hurricane Maria has been slow for humans and the environment. The ecological impact of the hurricane is widespread. From poor air quality to the loss of wildlife, researchers continue to collect data but may not have all the answers for years. Some scientists believe it may be more than a decade before the animals recover, and it could take even longer for the rest of the ecosystems to return to normal.

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