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A biologist looks out at the destruction and fallen vegetation outside the gate of the aviary.
Information icon Looking out at Aviary gate towards the facility entrance. Photo by USFWS.

Irma hits Puerto Rico, Service facilities

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean may have missed the worst of Hurricane Irma, but the killer storm is headed straight for Florida and its bounty of endangered species and pristine refuges.

After rampaging through the eastern Caribbean, Irma steered just north of Puerto Rico. She nonetheless dumped 2 to 8 inches of rain across the island and knocked out power to more than 1 million people.

A map of National Wildlife Refuges in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
National Wildlife Refuges in the Caribbean. Map by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

More rain and flash floods across the Caribbean, though, are possible, meteorologists said Thursday. Trees, tree limbs, power poles and other hurricane detritus blocked roadways and kept officials from a full accounting of the storm’s fury.

And another hurricane – Jose – is forming in the central Atlantic Ocean and headed toward the Caribbean.

Thankfully, Fish and Wildlife mostly dodged the Irma bullet across much of the Caribbean. No employee died and virtually all were healthy and accounted for Thursday afternoon. Damage to homes and refuge properties was, for the most part, minimal. And, while it’s too soon to definitively say, the 80 or so threatened and endangered plants and animals in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were expected to survive.

“Some islands out there really got damaged,” said Edwin Muniz, field supervisor for the region’s ecological services office in Boqueron. “That didn’t happen in Puerto Rico. If that [storm] had come through here it would all be a little different. I guess we’re blessed. I don’t know.” The Category 5 hurricane, with 180-plus mph winds, ripped through the eastern Caribbean on Wednesday killing at least 10 people and injuring hundreds. An estimated 95 percent of the buildings on Barbuda were damaged by Irma.

Winds topped 100 mph at the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge. The Service’s sole employee was OK, but the refuge’s greenhouse was badly damaged, according to Susan Silander, the refuge project leader in the Caribbean.

“The northern part of Puerto Rico got the worst of it,” said Silander from the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge in the island’s southwestern corner. “We did not get the brunt of it. We were very lucky. It was quite a storm.”

Muniz, with ecological services, said two employees hunkered down with endangered Puerto Rican parrots high up in the El Yunque National Forest on the island’s eastern edge. The aviary, built a decade ago to withstand hurricane-force winds, suffered little. The parrots and their keepers rode out the storm in the aviary’s hurricane room.

A downed tree rests on a concrete building.
A fallen tree next to the Puerto Rican parrot aviary hurricane room. Photo by USFWS.

“They’re all doing fine,” Muniz said.

Concern, though, mounted in the Southeast United States. A hurricane watch was issued Thursday for South Florida, including the Keys and Lake Okeechobee. Irma is expected to be a Category 4 hurricane when it makes landfall early Sunday.

The entire 500-mile long Florida peninsula could face – at the minimum – tropical storm force winds. Kevin Scasny, a Service meteorologist, said Irma could dip back into the Atlantic on its way north and return to Category 5 strength.

“Virtually everything on the East Coast could be hammered by tropical force winds,” he said. The Caribbean faces more hurricane pain too. Jose is expected to reach Category 3 status by Friday and near Puerto Rico by the weekend.

Fish and Wildlife officials say they’re ready for this very busy hurricane season.

“It’s evident we are well-prepared and we should be,” said David Viker, the Service’s acting deputy regional director in the Southeast. “We are the nation’s best at this and we should be. But we can never be over-prepared. I just want to remind everyone to be hyper-vigilant.”

Stay up to date with the Southeast Region and Hurricane Irma.


Jeff Fleming, External Affairs, (404) 679-7287

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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