A laborer named Angel Ramos used to gather mangos and avocados that grew wild in the hills above the city of Cayey, in Puerto Rico's east. The woods were verdant, they smelled of fecundity — and made him feel part of creation. Then the hurricane came.
"I climbed up to see what the mountain looks like. Oh, the sadness," Ramos says. "I see the uprooted trees. The naked limbs. It makes you want to cry when you to see it. How it's destroyed. It is torturous to look at."
One of the most dramatic sights left by Hurricane Maria is the denuding of Puerto Rico. The lush forests for which this island is famous were stripped bare by the cyclone. The sight is distressing. Puerto Rico's trees are spectacular — or at least they used to be.
You could have seen the African tulip tree, with its fiery orange-red, cup-shaped flowers. Or majestic ceiba trees, or giant ficus trees with their woody vines. Now, much of the island's vegetation has been obliterated.
"The wind was so strong, most leaves could not stay on the trees," says Dr. Ariel Lugo, the 74-year-old director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. Lugo has been studying Puerto Rican forests, and the effects of hurricanes, for 54 years.
"You asked me who got defoliated, everyone did," he says about the bare trees.
We stand on a hill, in a thousand-acre nature preserve in the heart of San Juan, looking south. We clearly see the high-rises and shopping centers and sports stadiums. "Normally you don't see the city," he says. "Normally the city doesn't see us. After a hurricane, everything gets exposed."