Home / Digging up our Past / Hurricane Irma update: On ravaged Barbuda, an archaeology center tries to pick up the pieces

Hurricane Irma update: On ravaged Barbuda, an archaeology center tries to pick up the pieces

Hurricane Irma passes the eastern end of Cuba on the morning of 8 September.

NOAA/CIRA

Deadly Hurricane Irma has subsided after tearing across the Caribbean and Florida. Millions are still without power, and officials are still assessing casualties.

Prior to the storm’s arrival in Florida, The Scientist reported that many researchers were racing to stormproof their equipment and back up data and experimental material that could be damaged. Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory was lashed hard by the hurricane this past Wednesday but came through apparently unscathed, Space.com reports. The U.S. Forest Service’s International Institute of Tropical Forestry, headquartered at Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, posted poststorm images on Twitter, revealing only light damage and no injuries to staff.

ScienceInsider is continuing to track how Irma is affecting researchers, so email dmalakof@aaas.org and let us know your story.

In Barbuda, an archaeological research station tries to pick up the pieces

Every January for the past 10 years, archaeologist Sophia Perdikaris has taken students from Brooklyn College in New York City to a research center and affiliated field sites on Barbuda, one half of the Caribbean island nation Antigua and Barbuda. If she takes students again this year, things will look dramatically different than they have in the past. Last Wednesday, Hurricane Irma—a Category-5 storm at that point—lashed the small island, population 1600, all but destroying the Barbuda Archaeological Research Center and its field sites.

Perdikaris, a professor at Brooklyn College, studies human and animal remains on islands across the Caribbean. Working with a team of locals, she studies pre-Columbian human remains on Barbuda.

“I think I was in tears the entire week,” she says. “[The Barbudans] become like a family; it becomes like a second home.”

Perdikaris was in New York City during the storm, but locals who live and work at the research station kept her apprised of the damage. Winds gusting up to 310 kilometers per hour stripped the island of its vegetation—300-year-old tamarind trees and 150-year-old mangroves. Livestock and wild animals alike were killed. One of the center’s two horses, Governor, was killed by flying debris. So was one of the center’s two dogs. “The entire island smells of death,” she says. (She’s planning to bring the surviving dog back to New York.)

A truck owned by the Barbuda Archaeological Research Center sits in floodwaters from Hurricane Irma. The island’s historic Martello Tower is in the background.

Sheville Charles

Thankfully, the Barbudan volunteer staffer and her family who rode out the storm were unscathed. The physical building suffered relatively minor damage, but much of the center’s outdoor equipment and weather station were destroyed.

Perdikaris will be visiting the island in a couple of weeks to formally assess the damage. The field sites are remote and the cars mostly destroyed, so she suspects she’ll be riding out on the center’s surviving horse, Make Way, a hardy, 19-year-old stallion that is something of a mascot for Perdikaris’s team. And she expects that when archaeological work ultimately resumes, she and her team will essentially be starting from scratch.

“From an archaeological perspective, we have nothing left,” she says. “[The storm] has destroyed a lot of the materials, but it has not destroyed the spirit.”

Still, she is looking for silver linings wherever she can find them. When Hurricane Georges hit the island in 1998, it stripped off layers of earth and revealed one of the island’s archaeological jewels: the well-preserved skeleton of an adult male who lived around 450 C.E. Who knows what old stones and bones have been unearthed by Irma?

Even in the midst of the devastation to her research, Perdikaris is more concerned with rebuilding Barbuda, feeding and sheltering its people and helping them get back to life as usual. The storm killed many deer and fruit trees that the people rely on for sustenance. The island’s police station was destroyed, so the police have converted the small museum that houses the ancient Barbudan skeleton into a temporary headquarters.

Perdikaris believes her team’s archaeological work can play a part in the rebuilding. Learning about the past, she says, can remind islanders that throughout the years, Barbudans have persevered.

Michael Price

Roundup: Many research facilities dodge damage

Hurricane Irma’s shifting path left less destruction in mainland Florida than many feared—and damage assessment is ongoing on in the Florida Keys, the string of islands that stretches southwest from the state’s southern tip.

It may take several days to fully evaluate damage on the Keys, says spokesperson Gena Parsons of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), speaking to Science from Gulfport, Mississippi. NOAA manages the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which includes the Florida Reef and several other barrier reefs, mangrove forests, and seagrass fields in the region. Previous hurricanes severely damaged the sanctuary’s reefs, but it’s too early to tell how they fared under Irma, she said. NOAA staffers have not been allowed back to their offices on Key West and Key Largo, and there is no timeline for when that might happen.

Florida International University’s Aquarius Reef Base, an underwater coral reef research station southeast of Key Largo, was evacuated ahead of the storm and researchers have not yet been able to reach the habitat to see whether it sustained any damage.

The Dolphin Research Center, a private facility that studies dolphin cognition and behavior in addition to offering entertainment and education shows, said all of its staff, dolphins, sea lions, and birds were uninjured, although it is still assessing damage.

There was also concern over the fate of the Key deer, a diminutive, endangered white-tail deer subspecies endemic to the islands. U.S. Fish and Wildlife staffers who manage the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key and No Name Key have not yet been able to check on the deer, but video footage shared on Twitter by a Miami, Florida–based CBS reporter showed a handful of apparently uninjured deer running on the island after the storm.

”The key deer are going to be fine,” says Eric Hoffman, a biologist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando who studies the deer. “They have lived on Big Pine Key for thousands of years and have survived all this time, presumably through storms as big as this.”

Research centers and labs on the mainland appear to have been largely spared. Christopher Reich, deputy center director for the United States Geological Survey’s St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center reported no damage to the facilities.

The University of Florida’s (UF’s) various research centers across the state are dealing with minor issues, said ‌Jeanna Mastrodicasa, a UF vice president in Gainesville. A number of research crops have been destroyed and UF researchers are desperately trying to pump water from a flooded citrus field in Immokalee, Florida, to save orange trees used for studies. At UF research centers in Ona and the Everglades, staffers are working to restore power to preserve agricultural samples kept in freezers.

At the UF flagship campus in Gainesville, little damage was reported. “As far as laboratory infrastructure, we’re just mopping up water off the floor, but no extreme flooding,” Mastrodicasa says.

Travis Mohrman, facilities director for the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory on the state’s western coast south of Tallahassee, said his facility held up quite well during the storm. “I think what you’ll find is that most marine labs and field stations are impressively prepared for this sort of thing,” he says.

In the Caribbean, several islands sustained severe damage. Satellite images from NASA revealed that several previously lush, verdant islands such as St. Thomas and St. John were largely stripped of their vegetation, turning the islands brown when viewed from above.

The University of the Virgin Islands released a statement saying that although its St. Croix campus was largely unaffected by the storm, its campus on St. Thomas—home to the university’s Center for Marine and Environmental Studies Water Resources Research Institute—suffered severe damaged, with several buildings no longer habitable.

In Puerto Rico, staff at the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve were unharmed following the storm and the reserve itself escaped with minimal damage.

The University of Georgia Marine Institute on Sapelo Island, which serves as the base for the Georgia Coastal Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, experienced a storm surge of about 3.5 meters—1.5 meters higher than normal high tide—flooding its labs and knocking out power, reported the institute’s director, Merryl Alber, from the university’s campus in Athens. From a science standpoint, she’s eager to learn how such a large surge of saltwater may have affected the island’s pockets of freshwater. “We are very interested in determining whether it caused an upstream incursion of seawater into tidal freshwater areas, and what that might mean for the ecosystem,” Alber says.

A cousin program, the Florida Everglades LTER, also was hit by a large storm surge, says Evelyn Gaiser, the program’s principal investigator. But researchers haven’t yet been able to secure the necessary permits to enter the national park, which is now locked down by federal officials, to fully assess the damage. “This ecosystem is really resilient against things like this, but we’re not sure how additional stressors like sea level rise could impact that reslience,” she says.

—Michael Price

In Florida, storm warnings scramble doctoral training meeting

ORLANDO, FLORIDA—Earlier this week, the plan was to spend two leisurely days of presentations and discussions here sharing insights from an ambitious National Institutes of Health (NIH) program aimed at revamping training for the next generation of biomedical science Ph.D.s. But the pending arrival of Hurricane Irma threw those plans off kilter.

Late this past Tuesday, as Florida officials began warning state residents to prepare for the worst, organizers of the Broadening Experience in Scientific Training (BEST) Practices Workshop and an affiliated Association of American Colleges (AAMC) meeting announced they were cancelling the AAMC meeting, and urged those who had signed up to stay home. “Your safety, well-being, and time are of utmost importance to us,” an email from AAMC meeting organizers said. “At the very least, it is clear that flight cancellations and delays will be inevitable.”

The email, sent 14 hours before the 2-day BEST workshop was set to begin, came too late for about 80 administrators and professors who had already arrived for the workshop. (Two hundred were registered to attend, according to organizers.) So organizers opted to start the workshop 2 hours early and pack it into 1 day. Despite the condensing, attendees seeking ideas on how to improve career development programs at their institutions said the workshop, which took place this past Wednesday, was worthwhile.

But getting back home before Irma hit Florida was a pressing issue. Some rushed to move up flights, while others devised plan Bs for getting home. For two attendees, that meant leaving yesterday for a 16-hour drive back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which should have offered plenty of time to discuss what they heard at the workshop.

Maggie Kuo

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