The Environmental Aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico

January 7, 2018

 On September 16th, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma, tropical storm Maria began to develop in the Atlantic. The tropical storm transformed into a Category 5 hurricane and swept over many Caribbean Islands, including Puerto Rico. The impacts of these natural disasters have affected the population and environment of Puerto Rico drastically. Much of the drinking water has been contaminated by dead animals, and 36% of residents do not have access to potable water. Not only is the water undrinkable, but there have also been massive floods that can completely cut off the roads and communities. Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has said that,“[Maria] will essentially devastate most of the island.”

Landslides impose a threat to humans living in Puerto Rico as well as will infect the water on the small island. According to a USGS study on Puerto Rico landslides, “Because most of the soil eroded by landsliding is delivered directly to river channels, fluvial sediment loads can remain high for many months following large storms.” Combining the pollution from overflowing landfills and numerous landslides, the available drinking water will continue to shrink in its supply. Another contributor to poor water conditions are the dead animals and animal waste that spread in the water systems. The urine of animals has infected the drinking water, which has reportedly caused two deaths from leptospirosis. People have also been drinking water from creeks containing animal remains in them, which also spreads disease and creates more unsanitary water. Yet another threat is overflowing sewage running into rivers and reservoirs contaminating water. For smaller communities, this contaminated water is the only resource available to them.

The lives of the inhabitants of Puerto Rico have been gravely damaged, and so have the ecosystems. The marine ecosystem in particular faces massive changes that will eventually affect humans as well. Due to strong tides and powerful waves, the ocean floor has been churned, leaving debris and suspended matter floating in the water. This creates a barrier that limits the amount of sunlight hitting the ocean floor, reducing growth and recovery. Seagrass plants that give life to many of the marine creatures are buried and suffocated. Fisheries depend on these seagrass beds as a natural resource, and the seagrass also stabilizes ocean sediment and protects white sand beaches. When seagrass is removed, carbon is released back into the environment, and marine biodiversity is threatened. The already poor water quality off the coast of Puerto Rico makes it even harder to regain the valuable seagrass meadows after a monumental disaster such as Hurricane Maria.         

Another threat to the ecosystem is on the mainland. Smaller animals and insects are losing their habitats and struggling to survive due to the amount of havoc wreaked on the forests. The remaining trees are left leafless, causing a major disruption in the islands ecosystem. Birds, insects, and other small creatures depend on the leaves for food and shelter, and this causes them to become more vulnerable to predators. This creates an imbalance in the ecosystem of the tropical rainforest and allows for predators with already high populations to thrive. Hurricane Maria drastically altered the ecosystems of Puerto Rico and other surrounding Caribbean islands. The impacts of Maria will leave lasting effects, on both the people and the ecosystems of Puerto Rico, that will take time to heal from.