SAN JUAN – Hurricanes Maria and Irma caused more than $2 billion in damage to Puerto Rico’s agriculture and livestock industries, including leaving nearly 5,000 cows dead and decimating the United States commonwealth’s plantain and coffee sectors.
The secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Agriculture, Carlos Flores, recalled in remarks to EFE Wednesday that the destruction wrought by Category 4 Hurricane Maria, which made landfall on Sept. 20, occurred just two weeks after Category 5 Hurricane Irma skirted the island and dealt a harsh blow to farmers and ranchers.
“Irma alone caused nearly $45 million in damage to the sector, while Maria caused an additional $200 (million),” the official said, noting that those figures only take into account crop destruction and animal deaths and do not include infrastructure damage at plantations and livestock facilities totaling an estimated $1.8 billion.
“Ranches, fences, warehouses, refrigerators, all of it was destroyed by the hurricanes,” Flores said.
The agriculture secretary said it was important now for farmers and ranchers to request federal aid from the US Federal Emergency Management Agency and the US Department of Agriculture, adding that his agency would assist them in obtaining disaster relief.
Roughly $12 million in food aid for the livestock sector and $8 million for clearing roads have already been provided, although much more aid is still expected to arrive for rebuilding infrastructure demolished by the hurricanes.
Among those most knowledgeable about the extent of the hurricane damage is Hector Cordero, president of the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau, who told EFE Wednesday that Maria had caused immense destruction to the island’s agriculture and livestock industries.
He added that just over two months after that hurricane charted a southeast-to-northwest path of destruction through the island local farmers are only able to produce between 3 percent and 5 percent of the population’s food requirements.
“Getting back to the 15 percent of food production we had before will take five years,” said Cordero, who lamented that a near-complete lack of tax revenue over the past two months had made it difficult for the island’s government to disburse aid.
He said numerous farmers and ranchers had been forced to abandon their activities entirely because a lack of electricity (power has only been restored to just over 60 percent of the island more than two months after Maria) had left them unable to operate.
“Some sectors, such as the broiler chicken industry, could disappear altogether,” Cordero said, noting that 60 percent of those animals died due to the impact of Hurricane Maria.
The livestock sector, which lost roughly 5,000 head of cattle, also was extremely hard hit.
Plantain, banana and coffee plantations, all crops that are important to the island’s economy, were devastated and will take a long time to recover, according to Cordero.
He estimated that it will take at least a year to grow a new economically viable plantain crop, while in the case of coffee it will take at least four years.