Grizelle González is an ecologist who’s worked at El Yunque National Forest for 25 years — first as a student and then as a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service. The 46-year-old has a deep attachment to the tropical rainforest. Even now, she gets emotional when she recalls what El Yunque looked like after Hurricane María hit the island on Sept. 20.
“It was completely defoliated,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. “The canopy was completely gone. It was almost like a desert landscape.”
Before the hurricane González says it was very comfortable walking in the forest, and the ground was cool and moist. “But, all of that changed. It was very powerful.”
El Yunque took a direct hit from the Category 4 storm and remains closed to the public. Although some leaves are coming back, the canopy was still largely bare in November. González says researchers believe as many as one-fifth of the trees in the 28,000-acre tropical rainforest may eventually die as a result of the storm.
“The system is working”
González, who is project leader of the research unit at the Forest Service’s International Institute of Tropical Forestry, says El Yunque has long been her passion. Ever since she was a child, her dream was to live and study in the Luquillo Mountains, where El Yunque sits, and her first job as an undergrad was to look there for worms as part of an ecology professor’s research.
“El Yunque is a very special place,” she says, “because it’s the [forest] that has the highest biodiversity than all of the other forests combined in terms of plant species.”
El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, and one of the oldest reserves in the western hemisphere — first set aside in 1876 when Puerto Rico was part of Spain. It is home to more than 250 native plant species and almost 200 vertebrates, many of them endemic to El Yunque, including one of the world’s most endangered birds, the Puerto Rican parrot. Researchers are still trying to get a count of the wild population which, before Hurricanes Irma and María was thought to number just over 50.
Green had begun returning to El Yunque a few weeks ago, in large part due to all the rainfall since the hurricane. One of its best known sites, La Coca Falls, is more spectacular than ever.
“The system is working,” says González, while standing at the bottom of La Coca Falls. You can see the filtration of the water, González says, as water cascades 85 feet down onto a rock formation by the road. The forest supplies more than 20 percent of the water to Puerto Rico.