On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma tore through the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, causing catastrophic destruction in the USVI and Puerto Rico. The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever measured, the Category 5 storm brought 185 mph+ winds that wreaked havoc and devastation. Irma took down power grids and communications in Culebra, St. Thomas, St. John and portions of eastern Puerto Rico, impacting over 1 million people. The St. Thomas hospital and St. John clinic were destroyed. The Puerto Rico & USVI governments shut down for the remainder of the week. US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp instituted a 36-hour curfew territory-wide.
Twelve days later, September 19-20, 2017, Hurricane Maria – another intense Category 5 hurricane – brought cataclysmic devastation to St. Croix and Puerto Rico. Maria damaged or destroyed 70% of the buildings on St. Croix, including schools and the island’s only hospital. The remaining power grid and communications networks in the USVI went down.
Maria was the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico since 1928. Her maximum sustained winds of 155 mph barreled into Yabucoa in southeastern Puerto Rico just after 6 a.m. on September 20th. Her winds were so powerful, they destroyed the National Weather Service radar installation in San Juan. Maria inundated Puerto Rico with 20–35 inches of rain and a storm surge of 6-9 feet, causing catastrophic flooding and island-wide flash flood alerts. Power and communications were knocked out across Puerto Rico, leaving over 3.5 million residents in the dark.
Both territories remained under 24-hour curfew for weeks after the storms. The severely damaged power grids would take four months to restore in the USVI. Over half of Puerto Rico is still without electricity and communications to this day.
The storm caused unimaginable damage to agriculture across the region. Hurricane Maria wiped out 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s crop value, causing a loss of $780 million in agriculture yields according to preliminary PRDA estimates. Plantain, banana, and coffee crops were the hardest hit. Livestock farmers suffered significant losses too, losing animals, buildings, feed and more.
Our Caribbean Area USDA family was impacted like everyone else, but we are working hard to help our fellow farmers, businesses and citizens. Many of our USDA offices sustained damage. The Corozal Field Office was too damaged to occupy. To date, some field office still do not have reliable communications, and the Mayagüez Field Office is still running on backup generators.