Amid Devastation of Hurricane Maria, Penn Researchers with Puerto Rico Connections Focus on Helping Colleagues

As Hurricane Maria formed in the Atlantic, then turned into a powerful storm barreling toward Puerto Rico, Arjun Yodh watched the news closely.

Yodh, a University of Pennsylvania professor of physics and astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences, directs the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, which partners with the University of Puerto Rico on a National Science Foundation-funded collaborative-materials grant.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“I sent out a note wishing them good luck,” he said. “Most people responded, and all of them were upbeat and optimistic. Then after it hit, I didn’t hear anything.”

Yodh’s colleagues were primarily in Humacao, located on the island’s eastern coast and one of the first places to feel the storm’s impact. On Sept. 28, more than a week later, Yodh finally got a response from the partnership co-leader, Idalia Ramos:

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​I am sending a single message because the charge in my phone is limited. The recuperation is very slow. Most roads now have access because the communities cleaned and removed the fallen trees and trash. Some towns (at least occasionally) have water but most of the island has no electricity…. Yesterday, [we] spent 8.5 hours waiting in a long line to buy gas so we could come to San Juan today. Some buildings at UPR-Humacao lost their roofs and others were badly damaged by water. In comparison, the damages to our building are smaller and our instruments seem to be ok. We will know after we recover electricity.

Yodh was struck by what he read.

“We first needed to find out the personal situation of each of our faculty collaborators and their students, as well as the physical state of the university,” said Yodh, the James M. Skinner Professor of Science. “Then we could begin to identify concrete ways to help.”

​​​​​​​​​​​​The researcher and his collaborators in Puerto Rico have what’s called a Partnership for Research and Education in Materials or PREM. The $3 million dollar grant couples minority-serving academic institutions with large NSF materials centers to carry out materials-related research and outreach. The LRSM-UPR partnership has been ongoing for more than a decade, with current activities funded through 2020. Their two major research projects focus on understanding and making materials that electrically respond to light, and on understanding and controlling very large molecules called macromolecules that reside at soft and hard interfaces.

​​​​​​​Like Yodh, Penn scientists across a range of fields conduct research in this part of the world. A Department of Earth & Environmental Science team, including Alain Plante and Douglas Jerolmak, analyzes the waterways, air and terrain in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest. Michael Platt, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, studies rhesus macaques on the island of Cayo Santiago. The recent natural disasters have changed how many of these researchers right now think about their work there, from scientific endeavor to humanitarian aid.   

When such a disaster strikes, people are the first priority, said Dawn Bonnell, Penn’s vice provost for research.

“We have extensive connections in the places where we’re doing research and collaborating,” she said. “We always want to be able to respond and make sure that people are safe.”

​​​​​​​For Platt, the James S. Riepe University Professor with appointments in the School of Arts and Sciences, Perelman School of Medicine and Wharton School, that meant ensuring the safety of a host of people who live in Punta Santiago, the workers and staff who keep the research on the small island of Cayo Santiago running smoothly.

Cayo is home to more than 1,000 free-ranging rhesus macaques, which make up the world’s longest-running primate-research site. Platt has studied the animals — how they think, choose friends, choose mates — for more than a decade, in partnership with an international team.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​On Sept. 20, both places sat in the direct path of Hurricane Maria.

“It was just pointed dead on,” said Platt, recalling a weather forecast that showed the storm’s 11-mile epicenter directly over a map labeled “Cayo Santiago” and “Punta Santiago.” “As worried as I was, I didn’t have a sense of how devastating it would be. We heard nothing for three days.”

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Once the scientists involved in the Cayo work made contact with their colleagues, they attempted to assess the damage by hiring a helicopter. The flyover was informative, revealing a dire situation on the ground, epitomized by a message the people in Punta Santiago had painted onto a street: “S.O.S. Necesitamos agua/comida!!” S.O.S. We need water/food!!

Platt also learned that although the lab and vehicles there were destroyed, the monkeys had endured, with all social groups intact. The animals’ food sources were depleted but, all in all, they fared OK.

Platt and scientists from the University of Washington, Yale, New York University and others across the country sent money and supplies to the field station. Several other colleagues started two GoFundMe campaigns to raise money. (Donations to help Punta Santiago can be made here; those to help Cayo Santiago can be made here.) The S.O.S. photo went viral. Shortly thereafter the governor of Puerto Rico arrived in Punta Santiago with relief supplies.

“All of this was an unintended great consequence of just trying to help,” Platt said. “We’ve now heard from all of our people there. They are all safe. Many of their homes have been damaged or destroyed, but they have all already been back at work.”

​​​​​​​Miguel Leon tells a similar story about his partners in Puerto Rico.

​​​​​​​A Penn team that includes Leon, as well as Plante and Jerolmak, both associate professors in the Department of Earth & Environmental Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, has worked in the Luquillo Critical Zone Observatory in El Yunque National Forest for close to a decade, thanks to two five-year NSF grants. Leon is the project’s information manager.

When Hurricane Maria started to make news, Leon says anyone who was on site hunkered down. “The national forest was closed and everyone was supposed to have gotten out,” he said.

In El Yunque, there is a field station called El Verde that acts like central command, with dorm facilities, a computer lab, a weather station — anything researchers might need to launch a project in the forest. It’s run by the University of Puerto Rico, with support from the Luquillo Long-Term Ecological Research Network, Luquillo Critical Zone Observatory (of which Penn is a part) and USDA Forest Service. The storm did such serious destruction to one of the field station’s buildings that it was condemned and will be razed. Many of the instruments, including stream gauges and those that measure soil moisture and oxygen, will have to be repaired or replaced. (Donate to a GoFundMe campaign directed to El Verde here.)

But worse off, Leon said, was El Yunque itself.

“The forest was basically defoliated. There is not a leaf on the trees. Whereas normally year round it’s a tropical forest, there are always leaves on the trees. An event like this, it’s like winter has suddenly hit the island,” he said. “There will be an effort to analyze what kind of effect an event like this has on the carbon storage of the forest. Does the carbon in all those leaves get released, does it get buried or is it mostly used building new leaves?”

After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, similar studies looked at the effect of major storms on the leaf litter in a tropical forest, but such research typically isn’t possible unless done by simulation. The team will also look at how hurricanes and other weather affects massive boulders, new research angles that equate to tiny silver linings borne amid devastation.

The work remains top of mind for the researchers, but mostly it’s because of the compassion they feel for their peers in the places hardest hit.   

“How can we help our friends?” Yodh asked. “Maybe help will involve shipping down or repairing equipment, or maybe it will involve bringing people here. Regardless, we need to learn about the damage and then figure out ways we can help. We want to get them back up and going again.”​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Hurricane Maria and Cayo Santiago