Florida Everglades after Hurricane Irma

After Irma: On the road to paradise (part two in a series)

Exploring the long-term effects — including, surprisingly, some beneficial ones — of Hurricane Irma.

If you live near coastal Florida long enough, you’ll eventually grow to accept that a certain portion of the trees will live their lives at a 45º angle. I can point to trees near Sanibel and on Disney property that have assumed that position since Hurricane Charley.

Along I-75 there’s not much to indicate Irma swept through less than six months ago, but when we take Exit 101, signs of the hurricane become apparent, mostly in the form of newly-planted queen palms that have assumed the position (the cabbage palms, more suited to hurricane winds, don’t seem as affected). As we head east on US 41 and begin to cross the Everglades, signs of the storm all but disappear. As we drift off the edge of North America, the only signs of civilization we see are (sigh) new housing developments fronting the wilderness.

The drive across the west/east route of the Tamiami Trail is always a ramble down memory lane for me as well as a journey to another world. As I’ve said, signs marking this slough or that slough serve only to remind you yes, you’re in the swamp, you’ve been here for a while and you’re going to be here for a while longer. Between parts of the Everglades protected with by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the National Park Service and Collier County, we simultaneously see someone pitch a plastic water bottle out of their car window and a “for sale” sign on a parcel of swamp. Literally, a developer has some swampland in Florida to sell you. 

The Seafood Depot in Everglades City is open, although it, along with several neighbors, still has a way to go before it's back to its pre-Irma condition. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
The Seafood Depot in Everglades City is open, although it, along with several neighbors, still has a way to go before it’s back to its pre-Irma condition. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

We head south on US 29 to see what remains of Everglades City and Chokoloskee. I’ve heard most of the Chokoloskee/Everglades City area had nine feet of water surge over the land. Photos show streets with unbroken lines of discarded boats, sheet metal, furniture and waterlogged everything. The trees lining the highway into town don’t offer us much hope I’ve been lied to; buttonwood branches have twisted and snapped on almost every tree lining the west side of the road.

In town, Irma’s devastation isn’t everywhere, but it’s ever-present. The Circle K — and by that I mean one of the two apparent gas stations in town — is still shuttered, with a roof in various stages of either repair or resurrection. Blue tarps seem semi-permanent on some homes.

Six months later, Irma’s heavy handprint still marks Everglades City and Chokoloskee. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

In Chokoloskee, only the mobile homes seem to have as-of-yet unrepaired damage, however minimal — parts of roofs twisted, siding blown away in spots. Other than the mobile homes, though, most roofs are steel and most homes sit on stilts. The massive cleanup effort here seems well past the worst of it.

Back on the Tamiami Trail, I’m heartened. Things could still be far worse in Chokoloskee and Everglades City; this bodes well, I think, for the Keys.

The Everglades themselves seem untouched, and we are fairly far inland along the road, but even still, the state of the swamp — more subtropical savannah here — drives home the point that hurricanes are part of nature and, like fire, they can move through the wilderness and leave it better, not worse. There’s more water on the south of US 41 than we usually see during the dry season (in parts of the Everglades, the driest time is the 30 days following the winter solstice, which means the “dry season” ended about a month ago). Everything here is abundantly green and, from where I sit along US 41, the Everglades looks more alive than I’ve seen it in years.

At the Oasis visitor center in Big Cypress, a park ranger explains Irma dumped an additional 30″ of rain in the Everglades, for a total of 70″ of rain in 2017. Unlike the periodic Lake O discharges — done at the whim of the developer/rancher/sugar-cane-grower-controlled water management district — that come with an influx of petrochemicals, nitrogen and phosphorous, the Everglades is historically conditioned to benefit from hurricane rains that recharge the web of ecosystems spanning from the big water of Lake O to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys. 

We’ve yet to see if the Keys have benefited as much as the ‘glades. 

While working as the arts + entertainment editor for Creative Loafing Tampa, Cathy Salustri explored a post-Irma Florida Keys. Read the next in the series here, or, if you haven’t yet, go back and read part one here