Metro

Battered by Maria, farms in Puerto Rico face long recovery

From left to right,  Jose Rosado, Alexi Crepo and Chiki Rivera reacted as a cow who got loose in Hurricane Maria that they rounded up tries to jump out of the trailer.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

From left to right, Jose Rosado, Alexi Crepo and Chiki Rivera reacted as a cow who got loose in Hurricane Maria that they rounded up tries to jump out of the trailer.

ARECIBO, Puerto Rico — The stray bull had roamed through a valley of tall grass when the wranglers finally cornered it beside a highway on the island’s northern coast. They lassoed the animal and dragged it up a steep hill, prodding it over a guardrail and into a cattle cage.

The bucking bovine had a large gash on its side. Yet it was among the island’s more fortunate cattle, a survivor of the fierce winds and catastrophic flooding spawned by Hurricane Maria.

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When the Category 4 hurricane barreled through Puerto Rico two weeks ago, at least 36 people died and tens of thousands lost their homes and businesses. But the island’s valuable livestock and vegetable farms — a significant part of its economy — sustained devastating losses as well.

Within a few hours, the storm destroyed an estimated 80 percent of the value of the island’s agricultural crops, costing it some $780 million, said Carlos Flores Ortega, secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Agriculture.

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Bulldozers have been brought in to remove the bodies of thousands of cattle, poultry, horses, and other animals. Acres and acres of crops, everything from plantains to yucca, were destroyed. Greenhouses were demolished, their steel frames crumpled as if made of clay.

Jose Antonio Lopez’s dairy farm lost about 300 cattle after a river swelled and drowned most of the animals. With many of the fences swept away by the swift currents, he had hired wranglers to find the survivors that had escaped, like the one they captured by the highway.

“We have never seen anything like this before,” Lopez said.

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A few miles away, at the end of a road littered with downed trees and power lines, about a dozen drowned calves remained in a muddy field where the river had surged. Two adult cows remained in the pen where they had died, decomposing in the hot sun.

The animals belonged to the Ortiz Rodriguez dairy farm, where Alfredo Crespo was surveying the damage. There was a tractor that had been crushed by a fallen barn. Parts of a tin roof were dangling in the humid breeze. An office looked as if it had been hit by a bomb.

With at least 180 cattle and another 100 calves dead, Crespo, a friend of the owner, wondered if the farm would ever recover.

“We still haven’t been able to count all the dead,” he said.

As a bulldozer began clearing mounds of mud from the entrance, where not a single tree was left standing, Crespo said 20 employees were now out of a job at the farm, which had been in business for more than 30 years.

The scope of the damage has left the owner “destroyed,” Crespo said, pointing to the rubble.

“But this isn’t just bad for him,” he said. “The entire island relies on agriculture, and without this, there will be big problems.”

At a tree farm several miles away in Arecibo, where nearly 100,000 of the island’s 3.4 million residents live, Jose Perez Cortes walked through what was left of a 54-acre grove of palms. Many of them looked decapitated, shorn of their fronds. Others had been splintered, as if struck by lightning.

Cortes had spent 18 years at the farm, called landesigns, monitoring the trees before they were sold to a hotel or condominium complex. More than a third of them — thousands of trees in all — were now dead.

Other plants that they grew in pots, including ferns, cactuses, and bougainvillea, had been blown into the fields, torn apart, and made unsellable. The business has closed and is likely to remain so for months, as Cortes tries to regrow what remains.

“It’s really difficult to see this,” he said, pointing to a royal palm that had been severed in the middle of its trunk. “This is what the whole island looks like.”

At a nearby herb farm, Tomas Cortinas broke down as he stepped around the remnants of the massive flooding that razed his crops and laid waste to several of his greenhouses.

There were pots filled with rosemary, thyme, basil, coriander, and much more — nearly all of them now brown and brittle from neglect. He estimated that he lost 90 percent of the crops in his 10 greenhouses, some of which would take years to regrow.

“The river came and took everything,” he said. “We’re trying to save what we can.”

Cortinas is 72, and with only his wife, daughter, and a part-time farmhand to help, his eyes welled with tears as he considered the future of the farm, which they call Hydro-Tec.

It would take hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild, money he doesn’t have, he said. A neighbor’s bell pepper farm was in even worse shape, with nearly all of its steel greenhouses damaged by the 150 miles per hour winds.

“We need economic assistance,” he said.

Like many Puerto Ricans, Cortinas lacks insurance, which he said costs too much to be feasible. Still, he vowed to do his best to rebuild.

“I will rest when I’m dead,” he said.

At the Lopez dairy farm, where scores of residents came to fill jugs and bathe with one of the few available spigots of fresh water, the wranglers released the stray bull they had caught.

The men had chased two other cattle that had disappeared from the ranch, but they lost sight of them in the tall grass. Lopez paid the men $200 for their work.

While the injured bull was fortunate to survive, its jagged wound was a sign of hardship to come. Many of the remaining cattle were sick, their udders bloated because they hadn’t been properly milked since the hurricane, Lopez said. His workers usually milk them at least twice a day, but in the chaos hadn’t been able to.

Their grazing fields had lost much of the grass and were now covered in mud, branches, stones, and other detritus carried there by the flooding. Much of their other food supply had been destroyed and would likely have to be imported.

The hurricane had cost his business some $6 million, Lopez estimated.

“We need help,” he said. “We need it from the federal government.”

Calves who died in Hurricane Maria decompose in a field at the Ortiz Rodriguez Dairy Farm.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Calves who died in Hurricane Maria decompose in a field at the Ortiz Rodriguez Dairy Farm.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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