El Yunque Critter

El Yunque Critter

Everything You Wanted to Know about Hurricanes but Were Afraid to Raise Your Hand and Ask

Special Bulletin
“Luquillo Forest’s longest-running messaging service”

Welcome to the El Yunque Critter feed, Luquillo’s longest running messaging service. Unlike other online forest publications, Critter is full of “chirps”, or messages by and for the entire forest community. One of its main purposes is to prepare the community for any upcoming emergencies. Since its creation, it has become the forest’s most respected source of news. 

Critter debuted centuries ago, after a hurricane in 1780 demolished much of the forest. A Puerto Rican lizard cuckoo saw his entire family wiped out when a fearsome wind knocked their nest out of a tree. Then and there he vowed to start a bulletin that would prepare forest inhabitants for the arrival of future hurricanes and other emergencies. At first, messaging was simple. The lizard cuckoo would quickly write down chirps and post them on a local yagrumo tree. Other animals could also add chirps, or comment on the chirps of others. As technology evolved, the lizard cuckoo decided to protect the trees and move all the Chirps online. Wanting to make the messaging platform available to anyone, he named the it the “El Yunque Critter”, or just “Critter”, for short.

Although available to all animals of the rainforest, the Puerto Rican lizard cuckoos remained editors of the messages until the arrival of the Puerto Rican parrots in the early 1900s. The parrots had been forced out of their original habitats on the island. Those who remained sought refuge in El Yunque. Most of the forest community considered the parrots better communicators than the lizard cuckoos, and the parrots were asked to monitor and edit the messages. Unfortunately, by the 1960s the parrot population had declined drastically. They were no longer able to continue editing. Today, bananaquits edit Critter, mostly by looking for any inaccurate information. Still, sometimes bad information can slip through, so all Critter users are encouraged to read the chirps carefully! Since we are the most common birds in the forest, we have easier access to the entire community.

Barbara Bananaquit
Critter Chirper-in-Chief

Chirp #199
June 1, 1998

June 1st marks the start of hurricane season. Since hurricanes have the potential to cause more damage to the forest community than any other natural or manmade disaster, we follow them carefully from now until November 30th, the official end of the hurricane season. In our part of the Caribbean, August and September are the months of greatest hurricane danger.

 If you were born within the last year and think a hurricane is some sort of speedy walking stick, read this bulletin immediately and carefully. If you are more than a year old, you most likely read this bulletin last year. No need to read it again. Keep alert for further bulletins. 

Knowledge is power, and the purpose of this bulletin is to make you knowledgeable about hurricanes. Let’s start with the name. The word “hurricane” was around long before Mr. Lizard Cuckoo lost his family back in 1780. It comes from the Taino Indians, who lived on this island a thousand years before Spanish ships appeared on the horizon. Their word was huracán, which also became the Spanish word for this storm.

And how do hurricanes differ from other storms? First, they are huge, up to a thousand miles wide. Second, they travel in a swirling circular pattern around a center of low pressure. Third, they produce high winds. If winds are clocked at 75 miles per hour (121 kph) or higher, the storm is declared a hurricane. And fourth, rain. Hurricanes dump a lot of rain, often more than a foot of rain in an hour’s time.

The wind, the rain, and the length of time it takes for a hurricane to pass over the forest can all work together to produce great damage. DO NOT TAKE A HURRICANE LIGHTLY. Learn how you and your species can protect yourselves from a hurricane, and watch for future bulletins. They will be posted when a hurricane forms.

Chirp from Sandy Snail:
If anyone wants to know what a swirling circular pattern looks like, they can look at us. We C. caracolla snails have a lovely flat shell that is an excellent example of the spiral pattern. We are usually found half-hidden on the forest floor.

Chirp from Warren Woodpecker:
I must speak up for another member of the bird community, a member who is usually not here in the forest himself (editor’s note: or herself). I refer to the magnificent frigatebird, Fregata magnificens, or as it is known locally, the rabijunco. This beautiful bird is often seen floating motionless in the air over bays and inshore waters. At times it changes its flight pattern, flying farther inland in a less-than-graceful manner. This is one of the most important natural indicators that a hurricane is coming. (Another name for the bird is the hurricane bird.) Back when Mr. Lizard Cuckoo first started this bulletin, the uncommon flight of the magnificent frigatebird was one of the most important indicators that a hurricane was coming. I say “thank you” to this unsung hero.

Chirp from Anita Anole:
When I read this bulletin last year, I wondered why you said the hurricane season was from June to November. What’s to stop one from coming in January, or March? So I went to the forest library, and I’d like to share with you what I found. Hurricanes need warm water to form. The ocean needs to be around 90 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. That is why hurricanes don’t form in cold places like the Arctic Ocean, and why they don’t form in winter months. Even in warm places like the Caribbean, the water is in the low to mid ‘80s in the winter.

Chirp from Peter Sierra Palm:
I’d like to comment on the heavy rains. I live along the banks of the Icacos River, about ten feet above the water line. I often wished I lived closer to the river and used to envy my young friend Pam, another sierra palm who lived about two feet above the water line. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo passed through the forest. The rain was so heavy, I could scarcely see plants that were a foot (0.3 meters) away. Before long, the river started to rise. I could actually see the shadowy form of water rising, covering rocks and inching its way up the bank. Before long, it was above the roots and lower trunk of my friend Pam. A bit later, it reached my roots, then my lower trunk. I couldn’t see any part of Pam. It was all I could do to hold onto the soil with my roots, which were quite well anchored. When the water reached the middle of my trunk, I thought I was a goner. But then it started to recede. When the river returned to normal, Pam was gone.

Chirp from Marv Mushroom:
My father went through a hurricane nine years ago. He was on the forest floor. He saw a gust of wind take a palm tree branch and hurl it at the trunk of a tabonuco tree with such force that the tip of the palm branch went halfway through the trunk! It remains there to this day.

Chirp #205
September 15, 1998

So far this year we have been lucky. Several hurricanes in the region never made it to our island. But don’t get complacent. Another may be coming. Buzz Bananaquit, in a heroic bit of flying, went to the top of a canopy tower and heard two scientists talking. A tropical storm is forming in the waters off the West African coast. It is about 400 miles to the southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. Currently, it is a tropical depression, the 7th this season. A depression is a weak storm, but it will probably build as it crosses the Atlantic Ocean.

As always, we will keep you posted. Let us be grateful that hurricanes can be watched as they lumber across the Atlantic. We have time for preparations. I have a relative on the island of Montserrat, where there is a volcano. Volcanoes give very little warning before they erupt, spewing ash and hot lava over the countryside.

Chirp from Tad Tabonuco: 
I have experienced several major hurricanes in my hundreds of years. Being a curious tree, I found out where these hurricanes started. In so doing, I came upon a great irony. Most of the wild, immensely powerful, horrifyingly dangerous hurricanes get their start in a region of tranquil ocean known as the doldrums. Doldrums, hah! The doldrums lie off the coast of Africa near the Equator. Very hot summer temperatures and motionless ocean combine to produce warm water, perfect for forming hurricanes. This region has been nicknamed “the hurricane incubator.” Most of the major hurricanes that reach us start in this region. They make their way west over the Atlantic near the Equator, curve slowly northward, then turn again to the west somewhere in the Caribbean.

Chirp #206
September 17, 1998

We have a new hurricane. As we predicted, the depression became stronger yesterday. It was upgraded to tropical storm category. When a system is strong enough to be called a tropical storm, it gets a name. Its name is Georges. Today, the storm grew even stronger, with winds above 75 miles per hour (121 kph). It is now officially Hurricane Georges. It lies about 1,300 miles east of the Lesser Antilles (the smaller, more southerly islands of the Caribbean). As the hurricane winds swirl around, the entire system moves to the northeast from 5 (8 kph) to 20 miles per hour (32 kph). Let’s say Georges is a fast storm, moving 20 miles per hour (32 kph). It could reach the Caribbean in around three days. 

We have many organisms in the forest, and each will be faced with special problems if the hurricane hits. Please let us know if you have any tips on how your species can survive the storm. The following was submitted to us yesterday. We thank Karola and ask for more practical tips like this.

Chirp from Karola Coquí:
In case this storm becomes a hurricane and hits us, I would like to share a family story about my great-grandfather, who died in Hurricane Hugo. Great-grandfather and his family found the perfect hole to weather the storm. They burrowed under leaves protected by a large rock, and the rock was far from streams and rivulets. The hurricane was fierce. Winds sounded like the screams of a million creatures as they broke off branches and ripped away leaves. Rains fell in diagonal sheets. After several hours the winds and rains stopped. Great-grandfather, ever the adventurer, longed to go out and survey the damage. Great-grandmother, who was much more cautious (in fact, she never left that hole until the day she died), pleaded with him to stay inside. Great-grandfather paid no attention to his wife. He was gone a few moments when suddenly the winds and rains started again with fierce intensity. Great-grandfather didn’t know about the eye of the hurricane. For that lack of knowledge, he paid with his life.

Remember, the hurricane swirls in a circular spiral. The central core of this spiral is the “eye.” It can be up to 25 miles (40 km) wide. Here the winds stop, rains decrease, and you might even see blue sky. But the storm is only half over; when the eye passes, the winds and rains rev up again, from the opposite side. Do not be tempted to check things out, or you will meet the same fate my great-grandfather met.

Chirp #207
September 19, 1998

MAJOR ALERT!! We have just received word that an airplane equipped with instruments to measure Hurricane Georges flew into the heart of the hurricane. What a heroic (or is the correct word foolhardy?) group of men and women. They clocked winds at 150 miles per hour (241 kph), with a low atmosphere pressure of 938 millibars. A hurricane is like an immense machine churning across the ocean. It becomes far more destructive as the winds get stronger and the atmospheric pressure gets lower. Georges has become a powerful Category 4 hurricane. It is only one step away from Category 5, the most destructive hurricane imaginable. This means, in lay-organism terms, we are in big trouble! Look for safe places to stay, gather up a supply of food and water, and stay close to your site.

Chirp from Tod Tabonuco:
As this hurricane comes closer, I feel I should give you additional relevant historical information. Around 11 major hurricanes have passed over Puerto Rico since 1700. Most of these follow a similar movement, ramming into the island along the east coast, often in the south-central part of the coast. They drop the highest amounts of rain on the eastern mountains. Then they make their way west and slightly north, exiting the island along the northern half of the west coast. I found a map showing the hurricane paths. Check it out.

If Hurricane Georges hits Puerto Rico, the Luquillo Mountains will most likely absorb some of the strongest winds and rain. Some scientists speculate that the Luquillo Mountains have redirected hurricanes over the centuries, sparing the island a larger number of major hurricanes. This may be why the Taino Indians believed that gods protected the island from atop El Yunque Peak in the Luquillo Mountains.   

Chirp from Larry “the Anole” Lizard:
It is well known throughout the forest community that many lizards live in the upper branches of the trees. Some never descend to the lower forest. My advice to these lizards is:
                 GET DOWN, AND GET DOWN NOW!
If the hurricane does pass over the forest, the high winds will bend the upper parts of the trees almost parallel to the ground. They will rip leaves and branches off the trees. Many trees will be little more than trunks standing at attention. In some cases, even the trunks will topple. I don’t think I need to paint a picture of what will happen to you if you remain in the upper reaches of the trees.

Chirp #208
September 20, 1998

Good and bad news today. First, the good news. The wind speed and direction of Hurricane Georges has changed. As a result, the hurricane spiral is not as symmetrical as it was. This has weakened the hurricane to a Category 2 storm. Though Category 0 is best (ha ha), a Category 2 storm will cause less damage than one of Category 4.

The bad news: Hurricane Georges is 585 miles (941 km) southeast of Puerto Rico. It remains on track to hit our island. If it moves quickly, it could reach our shores within 29 hours.

Chirp from Slim Snail:
If we get hit, we are going to get a lot of very heavy rain. With such a downpour in such a short time, streams will quickly overflow their banks. Plants, animals, soil and rocks will be washed downstream. As the soil gets overly saturated, there may also be landslides along some of the steepest slopes. These landslides can uproot acres of trees and plants as they move down the mountainside. 

Fellow snails, start moving NOW NOW NOW to areas of gentle slopes far uphill from streams and rivulets. Look for trees that have good sturdy root systems, such as the tabonucos, sierra palms, and dwarf forest trees. These trees are less likely to topple. Get underneath them and don’t move!

Chirp #209
September 21, 1998

As dawn broke today, Hurricane Georges was 75 miles (121 km) east of St. Croix in the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands. It found warmer waters. Those waters have, unfortunately, revived the hurricane. Once again Georges has a symmetrical spiral movement. The winds are gaining speed as they circle the eye. Most likely, Georges will reach Puerto Rico’s eastern coast by the end of the day.  Weather experts are predicting this may be the most destructive hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since San Ciprian in 1932.

[Here is a bit of trivia as we await the storm: Back in 1932, the island followed the Spanish Catholic tradition of naming hurricanes for patron saints. Each patron saint has a special day during the year, and the saint of the day the hurricane hit became the name of the hurricane. And so, the hurricane of September 26, 1932 was called San Ciprián (Saint Ciprian). We had Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and we have Hurricane Georges today, but those were named by the World Meteorological organization.]

Godspeed to all.

Chirp #210
September 29, 1998

Only today, a week after Hurricane Georges struck Puerto Rico, are we able to publish our first post-hurricane set of chirps. First, we shall recap what happened:

At 7:00 p.m. September 21st the eye of Hurricane Georges, then Category 3, touched Puerto Rico along the southeast coast. Winds were clocked at 115 miles per hour (185 kph), with gusts up to 150 miles per hour (241 kph). Atmospheric pressure was 967 millibars. The diameter of the eye ranged between 20 and 25 miles wide (32 and 40 km wide). Georges crossed the island to the south of the Cordillera Central, the mountain range that forms the island’s backbone. This was slightly to the south of the eastern Luquillo Mountains. Although damage in the forest was bad, it would have been worse if the eye had passed directly overhead. Intense thunderstorms, very heavy rains and occasional tornados accompanied the hurricane. At 1:00 a.m., the eye departed Puerto Rico southwest of the city of Mayagüez, which lies at the center of the coast. 

The nest near where Critter is published was damaged by the storm. One side of the nest blew away and will have to be replaced. All in all, though, we were very fortunate. The tree we inhabit lost most of its leaves but none of its branches, and that seems to be the case with most of the trees in this region. The flowers that supply us with nectar and insects are gone, but we have found some fruits on the ground. We are surviving. We have seen very few other birds, and we fear there was great suffering within the avian community.

For five days none of our contributors could reach us. Slowly we are beginning to get reports, and we are passing them on to you.

Chirp from Felicity Fern:
I and my neighboring community of ferns have survived the storm. When we look up, we see brown trunks and branches and very few leaves. In spite of all the rain, it looks as if the forest has suffered from a major fire. Without the leaves, we are getting far more sunlight than usual. Some of our fronds are beginning to dry out and turn brown.

Chirp from Andy Algae:
The Espíritu Santo River, where I live on a large boulder, rose over 13 feet during the hurricane. I was underwater for more than 24 hours, but that didn’t bother me. The river shrimp, who can usually be seen in a quiet pool by my boulder, have disappeared. I fear they drowned when they were swept to sea.

Chirp from Yves Yagrumo:
I lost all of my leaves and several upper branches, but am grateful to be alive. Many of my fellow yagrumo trees were toppled over by the heavy winds and flooding. We are in a period of mourning.

Chirp from Greenie Hummingbird:
I certainly am lucky, since I survived this storm! I’ve been flitting around a bit and have noticed numerous landslides creating muddy swaths along the mountain slopes. I have also seen many uprooted trees. As a result, most of the roads and trails in the forest have become impassable. There have been no pesky human visitors to the forest, only a few intrepid scientists. I guess you can say a hurricane is not all bad!

Chirp from Cliff Coquí:
The news is not good for us coquí frogs. Virtually all the frogs who did not come down from their tree perches perished. Now, believe it or not, we are suffering from dry conditions. Far too much light is reaching the forest floor, and the excessive heat and light has already killed a number of our young. They survived the floods only to die from drought. O sad irony…

Chirp from Piper Shrub:
I must report, with great sadness, that all the walkingsticks who inhabited my branches and leaves have perished. The combination of strong winds and heavy rains swept all of them off me, and I have seen nary a one in the vicinity since the hurricane.

Chirp #211
October 22, 1998

Today marks a month since Hurricane Georges visited Puerto Rico. The forest still looks as if a fire had passed over, but if you look carefully, you begin to see tiny buds and other green signs of life, both in the trees and on the ground. There has not been much rain, not even as many clouds as before. Many organisms continue to suffer from the intense light and heat within the forest. However, last week we had a good downpour. That has helped a great deal. You will see from our chirps that not all is bad in the forest community.

We thank everyone who has contacted us during this crisis. This will be our last bulletin until the 1999 hurricane season begins on June 1st, unless of course there is another type of emergency within the forest. 

Chirp from Cyndy Snail: 
I followed Slim’s advice. Before the hurricane hit, I spent an entire day moving to higher ground. It saved my life. Thank you, Slim, and thank you, Barbara, for publishing the Critter. Alas, we snails are organisms who need a moist and shady place to live. Many of us who survived the hurricane have succumbed to the excessive sunlight and dry conditions.

Chirp from Carisa Coquí:
I have hopped around with heavy heart this past month, but in the last few days I feel a bit more hopeful. The dying seems to have stopped, and I am actually seeing newborn coquís. Billions of leaves fell during the hurricane. With all that debris on the ground, we have many ideal places to set up homes. I think coquís are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming months…

Chirp from Andy Anole:
Thanks to Larry “the Anole” Lizard’s advice, most of the anoles who were in the upper branches descended to the ground and survived the hurricane. Unfortunately, there are now twice as many lizards down below, and very little food to go around. Many of our favorite foods, primarily insects, died in the hurricane. Lizards are fighting other lizards for what little food remains, and many are starving. If the insects don’t return soon, there will be a massive loss of lizard life. I haven’t had an adequate meal since before the hurricane struck. 

Chirp from Yves Yagrumo:
I know there has been a lot of suffering in the forest since the hurricane, and I too have lost many friends. Yet for me and my fellow yagrumo trees, this is now a great time. Our seeds are really flourishing in all the sunlight. Thousands of yagrumo saplings are sprouting around me in open patches of forest. I have never seen so many in my entire life, and it does me proud.

I would also like to report something new, and curious. In the last couple of days I have begun to notice baby caterpillars crawling along the young yagrumos. They are a type of caterpillar I have not seen before. I’ve counted hundreds of them. What does this mean?

Chirp from Marsha Mushroom:
I don’t mean to seem unkind to the many who have lost loved ones, but we mushrooms are healthy and extremely active right now. Mushrooms lost their heads (ha ha) in the storm, but the part that grows underground remained safe. When the storm subsided, we noticed a tremendous amount of dead wood. Our lives are dedicated to taking that wood, decomposing it and digesting it. We have never been so productive, nor so happy! For a mushroom, this is paradise!

Chirp from Tod Tabonuco, Jr.:
I’d like to report that most of the tabonuco trees in my part of the forest survived the hurricane. We lost our leaves, but they are already beginning to come back. My father, Tod Tabonuco, Sr., was toppled by the strong winds. This was a sad moment for all of us, but he had been ailing for some time. He missed his peers, most of whom had toppled long ago. So, in many ways it was a blessing in disguise. Now my son, Tod Tabonuco III, will have more room to grow into a fine adult tree.

Editor’s note: Well spoken, Tod. Life goes on.