As a self-proclaimed beach bum and avid sailor, Riccardo Papa always checks the weather. An evolutionary biologist at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Rio Piedras, who studies the genomics of butterfly wing colors, Papa has a weather app on his phone that tells him when it’s safe to sail, paddleboard, or surf. So when Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico over the weekend, he had known it was coming for a couple of days.
Papa wasn’t too worried, but he went through the steps already familiar to him from Hurricane Maria just five years prior. The first was to make sure his close family was safe. Unlike with Maria, when he and his family had to flee their home to stay with family farther from the coast, Papa figured it would be safe enough for them to stay at their home near the shore. He reached out to everyone in his lab at the university, asking that they all reply to his email to say whether they were safe and had a place to stay. Once he had heard back from all of them, the only thing left to do was sit back and wait.
A Monarch butterfly with color altered with CRISPR in Papa’s lab
Steven Van Belleghem
Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico over the weekend as a Category 1 storm, and quickly knocked out power and water in most of the territory before moving on to the Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Fiona has since grown to a Category 4 storm and is headed for Bermuda today; it has caused at least five deaths so far, according to CNN. The secretary of Health and Human Services today declared a public health emergency for Puerto Rico. Although some of Papa’s colleagues have reported getting power back, much of the island is still without it and running on whatever generators are available. According to neuroscientist and UPR Rio Piedras biology department head Carmen Maldonado-Vlaar, the storm flooded the western part of the island, including the UPR Mayaguez campus, as well as the southern and eastern areas, leaving the northern area where the Rio Piedras campus is located in relatively good condition. Yet even for those less immediately affected by the storm, the strain from the territory’s continuing outages of power and water has been significant.
Upon reaching campus Monday morning, Papa found students already back in the lab, running analyses or doing homework using the power from the building’s generator, even though the university has declared a recess from academic and administrative work until at least Sunday (September 25). The Rio Piedras campus was relatively walkable immediately after the storm, and in contrast to after Maria, there were no downed trees to block his path, no wayward windows ripped from the campus’ buildings. Still, he says he sensed a somber air among the students he passed. With Hurricane Maria in 2017, then the 2020 earthquake, then COVID-19, and now a second hurricane, Papa says it is becoming exhausting to move forward.
“Even a hurricane that’s a lot smaller in comparison brings back those dark memories and those feelings of stress,” Mariana Ferré, a medical student from San Juan, tells The Washington Post. “The messages I’m getting from all my friends is, ‘I have PTSD,’” or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Papa’s lab after preparations for the hurricane
When Papa returned to the lab on Tuesday, the generator that had been keeping the lab equipment in the building running died, killing the freezers where Papa kept his samples. Frantically, he and some students sorted through the samples and reagents, picking the ones they thought were most important and rushing them on a bed of dry ice to another building that still had a running generator. The rest, Papa says, were ruined and had to be thrown out.
“Every paper or product that we do here requires a lot more work than everywhere else where you never have to deal with these challenges,” he says. “That is what is difficult to do, live life on the edge, always facing the decision of ‘what sample do I need to save, what am I going to take?’ And the unknown, because you don’t know when the electricity is coming back—it doesn’t depend on you.”
For Maldonado-Vlaar and her colleagues at the medical school, the only thing to do was keep going. Although they also had to scramble to move samples during the generator failure, the biomedical researchers have managed to return to some sense of normalcy, she says, working with a combination of limited electricity and generators.
“Researchers, we always go back to work before everybody else because of the nature of our work; if this was not important, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing,” she says. “There are challenges, but we are up on our feet.”
Papa argues that the challenges posed by natural disasters pale in comparison to those caused by the budget cuts scientists at public universities have experienced in recent years. The UPR university system, which has 11 campuses, has seen its budget cut almost in half and its tuition cost triple since 2016.
“We have a lot that we can teach, as human beings and as human beings who happen to be scientists,” he says. “Which is resilience. I think [scientists] should admire Puerto Rico a lot more than they do.”