Headlines: Puerto Rico Faces Widespread Destruction
SAN JUAN. Sept. 29, 1988. One week ago today Hurricane Georges passed over the island of Puerto Rico. Officials are still trying to assess the damage caused on the island by this Category 3 hurricane. Although it did not directly cause any deaths, several deaths have been linked indirectly to the storm. These were deaths caused by heart attacks, electrocution while reinstalling electrical cables, and other mishaps.
Puerto Rico has suffered badly from the hurricane. Some 80 percent of the island population has lost water and electricity, and authorities cannot estimate when these services will be restored. Half of the electrical poles and cables are down, and freshwater pumping stations are clogged with mud and debris. Up to 30,000 homes were torn apart or washed away during the storm, and an additional 70,000 homes have been damaged. Wooden homes with metal roofs were particularly hard hit. Even the upscale Las Casitas development perched on the cliffs at the east coast El Conquistador Resort was rumored to have suffered extensive damage. However, no official at the resort has been willing to comment. At present, some 400 shelters are housing 29,000 people.
The good news is that San Juan, home to half of the island’s population, lay 20 miles (32 km) to the north of the eye and was spared the brunt of the storm. Airport gauges measured sustained winds at a relatively weak 79 mph (127 kph), with peak gusts at 93 mph (150 kph), and an atmospheric pressure reading of 979.7 mb. The capital also received relatively light rainfall, only 5.26 inches (13.36 cm).
Jayuya Badly Battered
The areas hardest hit were the east coast region, where Georges entered, and the central mountains, particularly around the town of Jayuya. Storm surges reached 10 feet (3 meters) at Fajardo on the northeast coast, causing severe damage to coastal property. In Humacao winds were clocked at 115 mph (185 kph), and a tornado was sighted.
Sustained winds in the central mountains remained under 100 mph (161 kph), with gusts up to 130 mph (209 kph) (two possible tornadoes were also detected), but rainfall was severe. The hardest hit area received more than 24 inches (60.96 cm) of rain! Lake Guineo rose 24.62 inches (62.5 cm). At one point all island rivers, most of which start in the central mountains, were reported to have risen above their banks. Homes located along the riverbanks were swept away, and the rains and landslides dislodged homes perched on steep hillsides. Most rural roads are now impassible, either damaged by flooding or blocked by fallen trees. Road signs have been twisted by the winds, and several bridges have collapsed. Farmers have suffered greatly: 75 percent of their coffee crops, 95 percent of the bananas and plantains, and 65 percent of the live poultry have been destroyed. Amazingly, the radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory, an 800-ton platform and dome hanging by 18 cables 400 feet (122 meters) above the ground, found itself on the edge of the hurricane’s eye, but suffered no major damage.
Puerto Rico’s Natural Resources Destroyed
Within the island’s forests, severe winds caused many trees to lose their branches and all of their leaves. Parts of the forests look as if they have suffered from fire, not rain. The Espíritu Santo River, near Río Grande in the Luquillo Mountains, rose 13.04 feet (4 meters). Some trees, primarily those with weak root systems, were uprooted. Mudslides, particularly on steep slopes, have wiped out entire forest habitats. Incredible amounts of leaf litter lie where plants once grew on the forest floor, and entire river aquatic communities have been swept out to sea. Research scientists are combing the forests to learn the effects of the hurricane on the resident animal populations, particularly birds, which they fear have been hardest hit.
Beach erosion has been severe along much of the island’s coastline. In western Puerto Rico the eroded beaches caused roadways to be washed out to sea, and several coastal communities remain cut off from the rest of the island. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, several rivers set new all-time discharge records. The force of this discharge carved many new channels and eroded parts of the coastal flood plains. Many low-lying areas remain covered by standing water, and epidemiologists fear a rise in dengue, a serious flu-like illness carried by mosquitos.
Authorities predict that the total damage in Puerto Rico will climb to more than $2 billion. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has stepped in to help.