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Hurricanes, Recovery, And Resiliency In The US Caribbean’s National Parks
Hurricanes, Recovery, And Resiliency In The Caribbean’s National Parks
People and ecosystem see glimpses of normalcy amid effort to rebuild
By the time Alexandra Silva retreated into her interior bathroom to take shelter during Hurricane Irma, she couldn’t see a palm tree 15 feet from her front door. The rain on St. Thomas and St. John pelted the ground with such force that visibility was nil, and the murky midday darkness and howling wind gave an eerie vibe to an already terrifying situation. Pushing a mattress over the only window in her bathroom, Silva, an environmental educator on the island, sat down to wait.
Leslie Henderson, the Coral Reef Initiative Coordinator for the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources, looked outside her home in St. Thomas after the eye of the hurricane had passed and was astounded by what she saw:
“The patio was entirely gone; including the grill, washer, and dryer I had tied to the house before the storm. The telephone pole had snapped in half and was lying across the driveway. The cars parked in the yard had been turned, moved, and mine had been smashed. But what I remember most about that first glimpse was looking up at what remained of the trees. They were completely and utterly bare against a pale gray sky. It seemed more like winter in New England than the tropical paradise I call home.”
Less than two weeks later, Clayton Pollock, a biologist with the Christiansted, Salt River Bay, and Buck Island national park sites, took shelter in his bathroom with his girlfriend and visiting researchers as Hurricane Maria pounded the island in the middle of the night. As the winds picked up, Pollock began to wonder if his roof would rip off. “All the shutters were shaking,” he recalled “You could hear stuff getting torn down, all the limbs and stuff cracking and breaking and getting blown up against the house.”
As the people on the Virgin Islands took cover from back-to-back Category Five hurricanes in September, the natural and archaeological resources on the islands took the full brunt of the extreme conditions. When residents emerged from their homes as the storms spun on, they faced denuded limbs, mango and avocado trees snapped in half, power lines down, and the entire U.S. territory out of power. When the storms had finally passed, National Park Service crews chainsawed their way back into the islands’ national parks.
Hurricane Irma smashed records. An official hurricane from August 31 all the way through September 11, Irma barreled into the Virgin Islands on September 6 before hitting Southwest Florida on the 10. In all, 5.6 million people evacuated from the toe of the state. Additionally, the hurricane maintained Category 5 status for a full three days, and was “the strongest hurricane ever observed in the open Atlantic Ocean.” Irma had winds at 185 mph or above for more than 35 hours, so high that the change in pressure alone broke windows and caused searing migraines for those who could not flee. A gust of 113 mph whipped across St. Thomas itself before the weather station was damaged and recording stopped.
Whatever Hurricane Irma spared, Hurricane Maria swamped. This storm strengthened from a Category 1 to a Category 5 hurricane in just one day, on September 18, “thanks to a combination of low wind shear, a moist atmosphere, and warm ocean temperatures.” By September 19, winds were roaring above 175 mph and pressure had dropped even lower than that of Hurricane Irma. On St. Croix, a gust of 137 was recorded, while sustained winds whistled to 106 mph.
In the past, local island parks could help others during extreme events. Now, they all faced destruction.
Virgin Islands National Park Recovery
Recovery of both human and natural environments began almost immediately. “The initial days and weeks were filled with search and rescue, establishing communications, clearing roads, distributing food and water, and making homes livable for those with extensive damage,” Henderson explained.
The National Park Service has multiple incident management teams from around the United States on standby for such disaster situations. From presidential visits to floods to devastating storms, they are the first boots on the ground to help local staff, training together throughout the year before their various deployments. On September 18, the Eastern Incident Management team flew to Puerto Rico to pre-position themselves before Hurricane Maria hit. On September 30, they arrived on St. John, staying through October 15 before being replaced by the Western Team. Relieved by staff members from multiple teams on November 1, this collective worked until relief from the Intermountain group on November 26.
For now, the teams work out of the visitor center. Roof damage that allowed some water into the building has been repaired, as have the torn-off shutters and two large wooden doors that allowed water to seep into the entry space. While the exhibit rooms are in good condition, upstairs offices still need water damage maintenance.
“When they first showed up here, you couldn’t even get to those beaches because of the downed trees and the debris,” said Murray Shoemaker, who normally is based at Grand Canyon National Park but was called in to help the management team with communications, referring to the condition in Trunk Bay and elsewhere in the park after the storms. “They literally had to cut their way through the debris.”
Once stacked, the debris was trucked out to the St. John transfer station en route to St. Thomas to join the one million cubic yards of other debris collected from USVI. The Army Corps of Engineers remained on the ground into December to manage debris disposal.
Leaves of the sea grape, flamboyant, tamarind, bay rum, kapok, genip, frangipani, and more had all been blown away, leaving the landscape with a generally brown hue from the newly exposed limbs and ground, a sharp contrast to the pre-storm emerald hues that colored the park. Even the regular plastic bags and bottles that sometimes settled in the coastal forest had been blown away from the hill slopes, taking up new residence in the surrounding water or other parts of the island.
While the visual impact of the loss of leaves is stark, the species that flourish here were naturally selected to withstand storms. Edmund Tanner, a ecologist at the University of Cambridge, told NASA that “native vegetation on these islands has been through hundreds of hurricanes since the last major change of climate (10,000 years ago, the end of the most recent ice age) and have been naturally selected to lose leaves and small branches and re-sprout.” Because most of the rain that fell on forests here was fresh, salt spray did not become a major factor. He predicts full leaf recovery in about six months.
One of the island’s most famous trees — the Rain Tree found at the Cinnamon Bay Campground — provides a perfect example. More than 200 years old, the Rain Tree is thought to be the oldest on St. John. Reaching more than 70 feet into the sky, the tree withstood these hurricanes and many others in its long history; barely a month after Irma blew through, it was sprouting new leaves.
However, coastal areas that were over-washed by waves will take longer to recover: “Salt water from storm surge may have killed trees whose roots were inundated by it. Those trees will take much longer to recover because the soil will need to be desalinated naturally by rain, and seeds will have to germinate and grow,” Tanner noted.
In mid-November, Henderson took the ferry from her home on St. Thomas to St. John to meet with the crews working to restore Virgin Islands National Park. Sun brightened a completely blue sky, while a breeze kept the busy staff more comfortable during their long work hours. Though debris still remained everywhere, the briny smell of the ocean and loamy smell from the forests was pervasive. She spotted the infamous St. John donkeys, originally brought to the island in the 16th century to work the plantations and now roaming freely. Iguanas scuttled by cleared areas, and the canopy once again sang with calls from Pearly-eyed Thrashers, St. Thomas Conures, Bananaquits, and other native bird species.
The management team she met had come from all over the United States to aid in recovery, bringing young and rugged staff from a variety of national parks to help. They arrived on Halloween to begin their work, and on this day were eating lunch on wooden picnic tables with a gorgeous view of Trunk Bay in the background when Henderson caught up with them. None had been to St. John before, the post-hurricane aftermath their first and only impression of the Virgin Islands.
“Definitely a lot of progress has been made in the last two weeks,” Ross Garlapow of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks explained as he ate. A biologist, he wore the same worn T-shirt and dark green pants as the rest of the team. “We’ve worked on the north shore all the way around to the south shore.”
They’ve seen a lot of progress, as downed power lines and poles have been cleared away, ready for the replacements that would restore electricity to the island. He added that there were still a lot of areas that haven’t been touched, looking to all the world like the storm had come in only yesterday. As the days passed, the workers saw Cruz Bay slowly fill with people once more, as homeowners returned to check on, and cleanup, their property.
Another team member says, “I’d say when we first got here the whole hillside was brown,” leaves stripped from the remaining trees by the fierce winds of the hurricane. “From a natural resources standpoint, the land slowly restoring itself, little by little.”
“In general I think that the terrestrial ecosystem is very resilient. It is adaptive to these kind of storms that come through,” Garlapow said. “I think there’s going to be a full recovery of all the vegetation, even though it all looks decimated right now.
The crew finished lunch, ready to continue the hot, sweaty, exhausting work of clearing debris from the beaches, trails, and park in general, moving everything they could to the road for collection. On the terrestrial side, the work of this and other teams has clearly paid off. The sand is clear now, shining bright white in the sunlight. While some palm trees are nothing but trunks, the wisps of new green leaves and fronds on others give hope to Henderson and the other National Park Service staff.
The glimmering “sugar sand” beaches have remained a top priority for the incident management teams here. Without the beaches, the tourists and cruise ships wouldn’t return.
“Visitors are such a vital part of the economy for the island,” Shoemaker explained. Of the approximately 2.7 million visitors who travel to the Virgin Islands every year, 2 million are cruise ship passengers. Total spending stemming from the five parks alone generates $70 million, a critical influx for a region with a permanent population of 106,000. The national parks account for more than 500,000 visitors and 900 local jobs.
Through early December, four beaches were re-opened. To complete re-openings, roads at Maho Beach need work to fix areas where the throughway is undercut; additionally, North Shore Road at Hawksnest Beach has one patch of severe undercutting. Many unpaved, coastal access roads are simply gone.
Additionally, an archaeological team has spent weeks documenting damage to the historic and cultural structures on St. John. By Thanksgiving, the team had used a combination of site visits and drone flyovers to look at 75 percent of the park’s 640 documented archaeological sites, and 94 percent of its 227 historic structures. Damage ranges from collapsed walls to a tangle of fallen and new growth vegetation that makes accessing these resources virtually impossible. Annaberg Plantation, one of the most popular historic sites on the island, contains ruins from an 18th century sugar factory. Still closed to the public, the hurricane collapsed one structure’s wall and cracked another.
When staff couldn’t reach archaeological locations, drones provided a bird’s eye view. In one video, the drone hovers over Hassel Island sites. Shipley’s Battery, dating to the 1770s, has already sustained new growth along the flat top, its stonewalls suffering minimal damage. In contrast, multiple trees have fallen near and on top of the British Officers’ Quarters, built in 1801. The limekiln from the late 1800s remains intact, even with multiple derelict boats washed up mere yards away.
Luckily, storm preparation had included moving all of the park’s archaeological collections into a safe, dry area, and one of the current priorities is to work with a curatorial team to move the collection back into a museum space.
The National Park Service has completed initial reef assessments, looking both for human and natural debris that may need to be removed, but also just as a visual reading of how the reefs fared during both hurricanes.
Thomas Kelly, the park’s natural resources manager, was on the snorkel and dive team. A long-time St. Johnian sporting a salt-and-pepper mustache, he spoke quietly but firmly in recounting what he saw.
“I can say that the nearshore down to say, 20-25 feet … looks surprisingly good considering the kind of wave action [they experienced].”
For these fringe reefs in the nearshore, soft coral damage is more common. Sponges and soft corals piled up underwater, but also washed up on the beach in “unbelievable amounts.” Though these will have to regrow, for all but the experts the shallow reefs will look relatively unchanged from their appearance before the storms.
A week after her initial visit, Henderson snorkeled at Hawksnest Bay to see the coral for herself. While she was pleased to see much of the reef was alive and well, she documented pieces of elkhorn coral, an endangered species, scattered across the sea floor. While some of these pieces may reattach, many others will die. Tree branches broken off from St. John’s hillsides had sunk here, damaging the coral tissue. Still, she also witnessed elkhorn coral flipped over from previous storms or large swells. Not only had this coral reattached itself in the years since the disturbance, its new growth had survived both Irma and Maria.
In the deeper waters, however, Kelly said “there’s a tremendous amount of sedimentation as well as vegetative material that is at least as deep as 60 feet … which is a real concern because it is expensive to remove.” This sedimentation is blocking out the sun, impacting the photosynthetic processes the coral need to survive.
The storms hit certain areas of the park differently than the others. On the north side, an algae called dictyota (which looks like underwater lettuce) has been scoured out, gone from the 10-15 foot depths, showcasing the power of the underwater currents. However, on the southeast side, they remain. Dictyota and other macroalgae “compete with corals for light and space” Henderson explained. “However, it is likely the dictyota will recolonize and grow back quickly while it will take the corals much longer to recover, so it’s not as if a threat has been permanently removed by the storm.”
Additionally, an urchin species known as black long-spined sea urchins remains in pockets around the park, a strong indicator of reef health. Kelly expressed surprise that their spines weren’t snapped or that the lightweight sea creatures weren’t tossed out through the storm.
In addition to working to clear the debris from natural ecosystems and archaeological sites, the park staff was able to aid the local people. J.D. Swed was also eating lunch at the picnic tables when Henderson visited the park. A former chief ranger at Sequoia and Kings Canyon, he had been working on St. John for weeks. From the beginning, he said, a covered area at the visitor center became a public meeting location. When Hurricane Irma first hit, nonprofit organizations, FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, park staff, and citizens met every single day to exchange information and identify recovery priorities (the meetings now occur weekly). Public meetings at the visitor center allowed people access to information — especially when cellphones were down — as well as extra supplies like MREs (military-style Meals Ready to Eat) and gasoline for generators.
When park staff isn’t working on site, they deal with the ramifications of the storm on their own property. From palm trees in living rooms to roofs lying in backyards and debris blocking driveways, recovery is an all-day, all-week effort. Though power has been restored to part of Cruz Bay, through late November only about 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands had power. Still, stores and restaurants have reopened. Across the island to the east, Coral Bay has been slower to recover, and residents have described the damage looking like it was tornado-induced. Public dumpsters across the island are overflowing.
Employees live both within and outside the park, and “one of our main missions was to get [to] the park housing for employees,” Shoemaker recounted during a phone call. Some housing had been completely destroyed, others would need to be demolished, and still others would need repairs before becoming habitable again.
Using a drone, Shoemaker’s team inspected the staff houses within the park from above. Sections of roofs are completely gone, walls fallen into the yards below to reveal ruined bedding, furniture, and appliances. Doors and windows are open even in the best situations, flooding the insides of the structures. Moving forward, rehabilitating these facilities and reconnecting to commercial power remain focal points for incoming teams.
Of the approximately 50 staff members who were at the park before the storm, 35 are still on-island (others have permanent or temporary transfers to other parks off-island). Many depend on the park facilities that remain for clean drinking water and other services.
“I’ve responded … to almost every major hurricane since Hurricane Andrew (in 1992) for the National Park Service, and this is the most devastation,” Swed said. “Everything was brown here when I got here, not a single leaf. And roofs and flooding and telephone poles and all that. I mean, Katrina was bad and Isabelle was bad and all these other ones that I responded to, but this was the worst.”
As Swed continued, his low, gravelly voice wavers just a little, emotion showing in his face. “When it rains here I cry,” he said. “I know there’s people who have to get up when it rains and mop out their house or bucket their house out, or get the kids out of bed to move them under where the blue tarp’s not leaking. And then they come to work.”
While work on the terrestrial side continues, Shoemaker’s colleagues have begun to tackle the derelict vessels. Ninety have washed up on shore within the park boundaries. The lucky ones are still floating, but many are partially or entirely submerged within the blue waters of the shallows, while others are marooned ashore where the waves tossed them during the storms. Boat owners have been arriving at the park visitor center to make a plan for removal, but until then, many of the boats have damaged coral reefs, or are leaking fuel and chemicals. In Princess Bay, currents have created a literal pileup of different sized boats, overlapping in a bend of trees. While they wait for the boat removals to commence, diving teams work to replace buoy mooring systems.
Looking ahead, the current and future incident management teams have a lot on their to-do list. Debris management has moved from the tangled branches, roots, and trunks of trees and other woody vegetation to concrete and other large items. As of Thanksgiving, reverse osmosis water plants and treatment facilities were still not online, nor was electricity available for much of the island.
Both Swed and Shoemaker have been impressed and touched not only by the resiliency of the ecosystems, but of the staff and locals as well. Reflecting on his past experiences with hurricane recovery, Swed said, “the people [here] are more resilient in every way, they have great attitudes, they are super friendly, and that’s why I’m still here.”
Shoemaker agreed: “I’ve been so incredibly impressed with the resiliency of the people here, both the park staff and the people of St. John in general. They’ve lost so much, but they always say, ‘I’m doing okay, and it’s getting better every day.’”
Henderson is one of those positive people: “Now, while things are far from back to normal, we can see the first glimpses of normalcy. National park dive teams are back in the water, repairing moorings and conducting surveys to determine the extent of reef damage. Hiking trails are being cleared, historical ruins stabilized, and beach access is improving every day. There’s still so much to do, but the progress has been incredible.”
During her visit, she wiggled toes in the white sand of Trunk Bay as she gazed across the water. “I count my blessings that I was lucky enough to survive this crazy hurricane season and remain in the Virgin Islands to witness the resilience of the ecosystems and communities that live here,” she said. “Much like the trees around us, we may be going through some growing pains right now, but our roots and determination are even stronger as we cling to our rock city in the sun.”
St. Croix National Park Recovery
On St. Croix, law enforcement have completed initial assessments of both the Christiansted Historic Site and the Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve. While Christiansted suffered minor damage and has already reopened, “our visitor center out there at Salt River was severely impacted,” Pollock said. “Some of that roof peeled off and toppled into one of the other buildings.”
Additionally, because the bay is used as a hurricane mooring site for boats, the number of derelict vessels rose from 22 before Hurricane Maria to an additional 30 or more after Hurricane Maria. Currently underway is a “huge initiative by the territory and the park as well as the Coast Guard to remove those vessels,” continued Pollock, “They’ve got a barge down there, and they’re just trying to float as many boats as they can, and get them out of there.”
If the boats won’t float, they are loaded onto the barges to be removed for storage.
Buck Island Reef National Monument
Because Buck Island Reef National Monument can only be reached by water, it took more than a week for staff to get to the island to make initial assessments. When Pollock and his colleagues finally reached Buck Island, they felt a mix of sadness and reassurance.
“I was a bit relieved to see the island in the shape that it was in,” Pollock explained. “I imagined that it was actually going to be a lot worse, and we did lose a lot of vegetation.”
Additonally, he went on, “(I)t was just brown. it was kind of sad to see it like that. Usually Buck Island is this nice green island, with beautiful sand beaches and what not. And while the beaches actually showed some accretion … it really did not look the same, it looked battered.”
Still, many of the terrestrially monitored species had done quite well through the storm. The critically endangered St. Croix Ground Lizard populations remained stable, even expanding, while a small rookery of Brown pelicans and Magnificent frigatebirds had begun nesting again. Even sea turtles returned to the beach to nest.
“We do have erosion issues at Buck Island, and beach narrowing, which was why we were kind of excited to see more sand,” said Pollock. “But our transition from the high-water mark to our beach forest is increasingly narrow, so if there are a bunch of downed trees and what not. They sort of blockade accessibility for our sea turtles to come out and nest, and Buck Island is a critical nesting habitat for the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle in particular.”
In addition, Loggerhead, Leatherback, and Green sea turtles also nest on this national monument.
“Sea turtles are incredibly resilient,” Pollock explained. “They are essentially dinosaurs, they’ve been around for 65 million years, and it’s probably going to take more than one storm to keep them from nesting.”
Still, many Buck Island nests were completely inundated by the storm surge or otherwise destroyed. Because sea turtles take more than two decades to reach maturity, it may be a long time until the full ramifications of the effects of Hurricane Irma and Maria on the local sea turtle populations are documented.
More days passed before the team could dive to assess the storms’ impact on seagrass meadows and coral reefs, which are home to such species as the critically endangered elkhorn and staghorn corals.
“It was kind of heartbreaking in a way,” Pollock said. “Particularly on the south coral reef, where we had these large, fairly dense stands of elkhorn coral. And they were just reduced to stumps.
Still, he noted that coral need some kind of natural disturbance because they reproduce asexually, and some of the elkhorn pieces could re-cement themselves into the reef and start a new colony. Even with that knowledge, however, he still said “it was devastating to see how barren it looked compared to before the storms.”
Moving forward, teams hope to begin the process of re-attaching coral pieces and working to restore the reefs as close to pre-storm status as possible.
The seagrass beds fared better. With the exception of a few blowouts – where current or storm surges had torn out the grasses completely, leaving bare sand – the meadows looked healthy. Still, Pollock and his team worry about the blowouts. Unfortunately, the invasive plant Halophila stipulacea grows within the park, and thrives by outcompeting native grasses when disturbance occurs. Researchers are closely monitoring the beds to see if the abundance of the invasive increases, while watching experiments on St. John to see if removal of the invasive is even feasible.
Across the national parks, trees from the famous Rain Tree to the beach-dwelling sea grapes and the incredible crimson blossoms of the flamboyant trees of the bean family have become metaphors for recovery of the Virgin Islands.
“Certainly the vegetation is kind of the biggest descriptor of a visual thing of how the island is moving back towards normalcy,” Swed said. “[The trees] aren’t quite right but they are living and they are okay, and that’s kind of how the islanders are.”
Natural resource assessments, archaeological monitoring, and rebuilding all continue, the people making the best of their situation and working together to make communities whole again. So far, more than $11 million has been spent on Virgin Islands debris removal alo
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