Puerto Rico recovery efforts continue

A long road lies ahead for the island and agriculture.

The effects of hurricane winds exceeding 150 mph were still quite evident to us 4 months after Hurricane Maria swept over the entire island of Puerto Rico.

For the last year we have been involved in a pilot project in Puerto Rico (PR) to train individuals interested in working on dairy farms in Michigan. Michigan State University Extension is a partner in the project with the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) – Mayaguez Extension. Training is provided on-farm with both classroom style education as well as hands-on experience. Puerto Ricans, as citizens of the United States, attend the program to experience work on a dairy farm and gain understanding into “why” the tasks they would perform on a Michigan dairy are so important. At the end of the training they are provided with an opportunity to be interviewed by participating Michigan dairy farms through videoconferencing.

In January, we traveled to participate in the fourth training session that has been offered in Puerto Rico. Just over four months had passed since Hurricane Maria had devastated the Island on September 20th. We knew going in, from our UPR colleagues and news reports, that much of the island was still without power and that reconstruction still had a long way to go.

The most shocking realization was the breadth of the damage. Truly no region of the island was unaffected and yet as with many natural disasters, one neighbor experiences little damage and the other loses almost everything. As a whole, there are about 40% of the island’s residents still without power. Even where power exists credit card access was not available many places and many traffic lights are not functional, so patience and kindness are required by all drivers. Blue tarps dotted the landscape as homeowners tried to cover their damaged homes to protect the possessions that they still had. Many more of these temporary tarps, put on homes by the Army Corps under a program called “Operation Blue Roof”, have yet to be installed.

Consider also the damage to the islands forest and wildlife refuges. As we drove through the mountains in the central part of the island we could see the damage to not only the roads and power lines, but also to the trees and the understory plants. Trees appeared as poles, virtually stripped of their foliage and exposing sensitive understory plants. We were informed that there would be no coffee harvest this year and supplies from last year would be expended in the next few months. The same was true of bananas and many other food crops that are produced there.  Maria wiped out 40-70% of the coffee trees in the Island. From planting to harvest, a coffee tree requires about 4-5 years.

As “dairy guys”, we were very interested in how dairy farmers and the dairy industry were coping after four months of recovery efforts. What we discovered was that the dairy industry has been hit unusably hard by this catastrophe. There are about 250 dairy farms in Puerto Rico, and three major dairy processing plants. These processing plants bottle milk and make yogurt, cheese, ice cream, etc. Only one of the plants is equipped to process and package Ultra High Temperature (UHT) pasteurized milk which is shelf stable. That last fact becomes important when 40% of the population is without electricity to run a refrigerator. Without adequate UHT processing capacity, UHT milk is being imported, while at the same time producers are told that some of their milk is not needed.

Direct effects of the hurricane on dairy farms and their cows were also substantial. Sources indicated that 20-30 dairy farms (~10% of the island’s herds) went out of business due to lack of power and loss of cows (one small farm lost around 60% of their cattle). Farms and cattle that survived the hurricane continue to be affected by the hurricane through decreased milk production and damage to buildings and pastures. Most dairy farms saw a loss of milk production from 40 to 50 percent immediately post hurricane, with continued losses of 10-20% compared to “pre-Maria”. The damage estimates reach $50 million, including infrastructure, animals, feed etc.

As we left the island we continued to witness power companies and volunteers coming to help Puerto Ricans rebuild Puerto Rico. The road to full recovery remains long, but it is encouraging to see those that have stepped forward to give a helping hand.

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