USGS helps restore public safety in Puerto Rico under harsh conditions

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U.S. Geological Survey field crews in Puerto Rico are rapidly repairing the damage wrought by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, tracking the scope of storm floods, and documenting the new contours of rivers re-sculpted by floodwaters and mountains re-shaped by landslides.

And they are doing it on an island mostly without electrical power, cell phone service, working water systems, supplies of fresh food, or everyday conveniences like ATM machines, under conditions that pose daily challenges at work and at home.

The island has been devastated by two powerful hurricanes: a glancing blow from Category Five Irma, which passed north of the island on Sept. 6, and a direct hit by Category Four Maria, which crossed the entire island on Sept. 20.

A USGS hydrologic technician examines a wall in Puerto Rico for a high-water mark after flooding from Hurricane Maria.
José Santiago-Saez, USGS hydrologic technician, flags a high-water mark in Comerio, Puerto Rico, from flooding on the Río de la Plata caused by Hurricane Maria. USGS Photo. (Public domain.)

With the help of rotating teams of about 15 USGS volunteers from the mainland, the island’s mostly young crew of 20 hydrologic technicians have rebuilt 15 of the 16 monitoring stations demolished by the hurricanes, replaced or repaired more than 70 of the more than 94 damaged surface water, groundwater, and rainfall stations, identified at least 74 sites where river and stream channels were significantly changed by the storms, and begun collecting high water marks to document the extent of storm-related flooding. 

At the height of the rainy season in September and October, as rain continued falling, flood and landslide risks remained very high, and the island’s weather radar was out of commission, the USGS’s work was vital to weather forecasting, flood control, and emergency relief work, said Rafael W. Rodriguez, director of the USGS Caribbean-Florida Water Science Center.

“I’m so proud of our staff,” said Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico who is now based in Lutz, Florida. “They have been working extremely hard, putting in long hours under very difficult conditions.”

“Every square meter of the 100-mile by 35-mile island has been devastated,” said Rodriguez, who was on board the first commercial flight to land in San Juan after Maria closed the airport. “Every aspect of living and working there has been thrown into turmoil.” 

Cistern water, MREs and laundry in a bucket

The 30 employees of the center’s office in Puerto Rico are mostly young, native-born islanders with children or parents to care for, Rodriguez said. Three staffers were injured in falls in the aftermath of the storm, but they are recovering, he said. All of the employees live in concrete block houses that survived the storm. For the first few weeks after the hurricane, none had electrical power or public water, and several are still waiting for these basic services to be restored. Some have generators. Others rely on butane stoves for cooking and ice chests for refrigeration.

For some families, water comes from springs or cisterns, and from FEMA-provided stores of bottled water. Food comes mostly from cans, because the island’s crops were devastated by the storm and there is little fresh meat or produce in grocery stores. USGS co-workers in Florida and around the country have donated canned food and other staples, including tuna, beans, and peanut butter, to the Puerto Rico office’s staff and their families, and some also got U.S. military meals ready to eat, known as MREs, through FEMA.

Employees must constantly improvise, in the field and at home. The center’s data chief, David Hernandez, lives in a mountainous area that took a direct hit from Maria and was cut off from the outside world by downed trees and mudslides. It took him three days of chain-sawing and shoveling to clear a 12-foot-wide path for his pickup truck to travel down the mountain road. Now his commute, normally 50 minutes, takes 2 ½ hours each way. Lacking water, he trucks it in from a nearby spring and does his laundry in a bucket. “Washing a pair of jeans in a bucket is not easy,” he said.

Cell towers were knocked out all over Puerto Rico, so—like everyone on the mainland who had family, friends or colleagues on the island—Rodriguez and others at USGS experienced a worrisome wait for news of how employees and their families had come through the storm. It took five days for word to reach USGS leadership that everyone was safe. And though the team quickly got back to work, for the first few weeks they, like other islanders, were hampered by the lack of power and fuel shortages.

“This is the first time USGS has responded to such a devastating hurricane in such a remote location,” said Holly Weyers, who oversaw the response as USGS’ regional director for the Southeast, which includes the Caribbean. “What really impressed me was how quickly the local staff pulled together and started working, even though their personal lives had been completely up-ended.”

Dodging gridlock and landslides to get a vital network online

USGS Rapid Deployment Gauge was installed near Morovis, Puerto Rico, to monitor the Río Grande de Manatí after Hurricane Maria d
This USGS Rapid Deployment Gauge was installed near Morovis, Puerto Rico, to monitor the Río Grande de Manatí after Hurricane Maria destroyed the permanent streamgage which typically monitors the river. USGS photo. (Public domain.)

Hernandez said a day in the life of a Puerto Rico-based USGS hydrologic technician begins very early, as staffers hope to avoid gridlock in a metropolitan area of 2.6 million people and virtually no working traffic signals. The field crews report to work in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo, in a federal building so damaged by hurricane winds that the General Services Administration placed it off-limits to the public for about a month until repairs were made. The building has no power, but two generators power the computers and air conditioning.

The technicians quickly head out to their field assignments, working in teams of two or three. Each team has a satellite phone, since most cell towers are down. They spend long hours on roads frequently blocked by downed trees, landslides, and bridge damage, where many familiar landmarks were wiped away by the hurricanes’ one-two punch.

The center’s first priority was to help federal agencies predict and manage flood danger. With no weather radar and with most of the National Weather Service’s rain gauges destroyed, the USGS reactivated seven rain gauges that had been discontinued earlier because of a lack of funding.

The USGS has 216 water monitoring stations on the island, collecting a variety of information including surface water, groundwater and rainfall data. Accurate real-time measurement of rivers’ and streams’ discharge is especially important because “so many things are based on it—like early warnings about flash floods, control of dams, and bridge construction,” Hernandez said.

At first, 94 stations were knocked offline during the storm. Consulting with the weather service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to identify the 25 surface water and rainfall stations most crucial to flood prediction, the USGS crews quickly got those gauges operating. By late October, more than 70 damaged stations were back in working order, and Hernandez expected to have all 94 up and running by the end of November.

Keeping an eye out for trouble, with a homeowner’s help

Working with parts and construction supplies Hernandez had stocked before the storms made landfall, the crews reconnected or replaced solar panels, salvaged steel gauge shelters from stream beds, hammered out dents, re-welded damaged parts, replaced ruined electronic components, set metal posts and poured concrete to re-install the instruments. Sixteen streamgages were completely destroyed. The crews rebuilt 12 of those from scratch.

USGS technicians install a webcam to monitor the damage emergency spillway on the Guajataca Dam in Puerto Rico.
John Holmes, Department of Interior, watches while John Parks, USGS IT liaison, and Dennis Rivera, USGS hydrologic technician, install a webcam to monitor the the Guajataca Dam in Puerto Rico, after the intense rains from Hurricane Maria damaged the dam’s emergency spillway. This camera is providing valuable information to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who need real-time information about the dam while organizing repairs. USGS photo. (Public domain.)

One damaged streamgage was just downstream of the storm-damaged spillway of the Guajataca Dam, where erosion threatened to undermine the structure that holds back a 2 ½ mile-long lake. In the event of a dam failure, about 70,000 people would be in danger, the governor of Puerto Rico estimated at a September 22 news conference urging residents to evacuate the area. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which operates the dam, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been assigned to make repairs, needed real-time information about conditions at the spillway. A rapid deployment gauge upstream provided valuable information, but conditions were considered too dangerous to repair the downstream station. So USGS crews identified a good vantage point, a private home overlooking the spillway. The home’s owners gave them permission to set up a video camera on a balcony to monitor the spillway, while the Corps of Engineers is supervising ongoing repairs.

“Our people have been very inventive,” Hernandez said. “They have to be. When you’re dealing with the power of nature, you don’t have a cookbook.”

In the first few weeks after the storm, crews also recovered 16 storm-tide sensors they had deployed before Hurricane Irma’s passage and 20 deployed before Maria’s landfall. One sensor was crushed under a collapsed concrete wall and another was lost when the pier it was attached to came apart, but the others were intact. The information they provided will help document the height and extent of both hurricanes’ storm surges, which in turn will improve future storm forecasting and allow for better emergency planning.

Helpers from the mainland pitch in

In early October, the island-based crews were joined by USGS flood response experts from Florida, Missouri, New Mexico and Wisconsin, all of whom volunteered to work on the island for two weeks at a time. This gave the island-based crews the opportunity to take time to care for their families. The visitors from the mainland are bunking in a rented condominium and working six days a week as the effort to collect high-water marks kicks into high gear.

High water marks—the telltale lines of seeds, leaves and other storm debris left on buildings, bridges and trees as floodwaters recede—are important tools for documenting the depth and extent of flooding. This information helps steer emergency relief to the communities that need it most, helps document losses for insurance and disaster relief, and helps property owners and local governments plan ways to minimize future flood losses.

At the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, USGS crews from Florida and Puerto Rico are now identifying, flagging and surveying the precise elevations of high water marks in 20 Puerto Rican communities flooded by overflowing rivers or storm surges. Because high water marks are perishable, the goal is to finish that fieldwork by Nov. 15.

Crews have identified at least 74 streamgage sites where floodwaters reshaped stream channels or river banks. In at least 16 sites, the crews will do additional surveying to determine the true extent of flooding. The list of sites where this extra work is needed is likely to grow.

A USGS Research Geologist takes photographs of Puerto Rican hillsides from a U.S. Army helicopter to document landslides.
Bill Schulz, USGS Research Geologist, takes photographs of Puerto Rican hillsides from a U.S. Army helicopter to document landslides caused by Hurricane Maria. This work will help identify areas around Puerto Rico with the highest risk of more landslides, which is information the Federal Emergency Management Agency will use to determine the best way to mitigate and prepare for any future landslides. Photo by Jason Marineau, DOI Office of Emergency Management. (Public domain.)

Landslides remain a serious problem. To help FEMA prepare for future landslide and mitigate their effects, a team of five scientists from the USGS Landslides Hazards Program arrived in Puerto Rico October 25 for a two-week deployment. Using satellite imagery and aerial surveys, the team will analyze the increased occurrence of landslides and help identify areas around Puerto Rico with the highest risk of more landslides.

Because Maria’s powerful winds stripped the leaves off of most of the vegetation around the island, landslide scars show up clearly in satellite and aerial imagery collected between September 26 and October 8. The team completed its first aerial helicopter survey over the central mountains October 26, and will make a ground trip to the Utuado Municipality in the northwestern part of the island, where significant landslides have occurred.

Cut off by the storm, families reunite and regroup

Each week brings a new step towards recovery. In late October, the U.S. Marine Corps deployed two temporary radar units to help with weather forecasting and aviation. Progress continues, but center director Rodriguez said for many island residents, life is now divided into two eras – “before Maria” and “after Maria.”

Rodriguez’ parents, who live on the family’s coffee farm about 1,000 feet up a mountainside on the island’s west coast, ignored relatives’ pleas to ride out the storm in a less isolated place. At the height of the hurricane, a wooden door came off its hinges and the winds tore kitchen cabinets off the walls, while rain drenched everything inside.

It was nearly two weeks before Rodriguez was able to speak to his parents. In the meantime, some cousins came to check on them. “Of course the farm has lost all its coffee,” he said. “Oranges, plantains, you name it – it’s gone. All the crops and all the leaves were stripped from the trees. But I’m told some green is already coming back.”

Rodriguez helped his parents, daughter and two grandchildren relocate to Florida, where they are living with relatives. Many of the center’s workers are dealing with similar family concerns.

“It’s a resilient group,” Rodriguez said, “and of course we have the support not only of our colleagues in Florida, but the whole USGS, so I’m confident that our people and our center will be able to get back on track.

“The work the USGS does in Puerto Rico is considered an essential service,” Rodriguez said. “Gauges are important to provide water to people, to document flooding and to save lives. I don’t foresee that we are going to have any issues with continuing our work down the road. But recovery is going to take many, many years. So there are a lot of challenges ahead.”