Tag Archives: Florida hurricanes

How I Found the Best Island in the Florida Panhandle

Part one: Getting there

We had the July 4th all planned: a couple of nights at Suwannee River State Park, then spend the holiday weekend camping in Apalachicola National Forest.

We had our reasons, and the main one was that we have a sweet coonhound who can’t handle the sound of something frying, thunderstorms, or fireworks. Calypso, our dachshund, has no such issue – she sleeps through the latter two, and at the sound of something frying she’s in the kitchen by my feet, living her life on the premise that everyone drops food eventually (she’s not wrong) – but does get annoyed when fireworks/thunderstorms sends Banyan scrambling into bed with us, waking her in the process. We have a king-sized bed, but a hysterical coonhound frantically scrabbling to get between us … well, let’s just say it disrupts a peaceful night’s rest.

Coonhound with teddy bear
Meet Banyan and her fireworks support teddy bear.

Every Fourth of July, this causes problems, because in addition to city fireworks, some of our neighbors like to exercise what they view as their god-given right to celebrate the start of the American War of Independence.

Banyan’s more of a loyalist (as was Florida, the forgotten 14th colony that refused to join the other 13) so she’s not so much on the fireworks.

This year, we realized that having a camper meant we didn’t have to torture ourselves (or, more importantly, our dog) and could go camping instead. Where, we asked ourselves, would fireworks be so off-limits that we stood no chance of them happening on July 4? Why, the forest, of course. We already had reservations for the end of June at Suwannee River State Park, so all we had to do was add a few days on to our trip at a nearby forest.

Suwannee River State Park was cool (literally, it was the end of June and we could sleep with the windows open in the camper).

With reservations in hand, we left Suwannee River SP and headed to the Apalachicola National Forest in the panhandle. If you’ve ever camped in a Florida state park but not a national forest, don’t assume they’re even remotely close to the same thing. Unlike state parks, national forests don’t have a robust staff, and in this instance, the only people there to assist us were the campground hosts. We met them when they drove up in their golf car, friendly as can be and smoking like it’s going out of style (which, come to think of it, it may be.)

The smoking made sense of one thing I’d seen when I’d walked down to Camel Lake to take in the splendor of the forest: shredded bits of cigarette wrappers, and cigarette butts. Nothing ruins the majesty of the forest like seeing the remnants of 305’s, the only tobacco product with the distinction of having even poorer grammar than health benefits.

So, OK, that’s not great, but we’re in the forest, and the only other camper in the camping area leaves the next day, our camp hosts tell us. The idea of having part of the forest almost completely to ourselves overrides a little bit of nicotine-littered greenery, right?

But then our camp hosts tell us the forest campground’s sold out for the holiday weekend. Almost as an afterthought, I ask, “There can’t be fireworks, though, right?”

“We won’t say anything,” the woman replies.

This is not the answer we want.

“I thought it wouldn’t be allowed, because, you know…” I gesture at the longleaf pines, in the midst of a massive restoration effort, then try and word the second half of my sentence as gently as one can when talking to someone who throws cigarette butts out in the forest, “the danger of fire.”

“Well, the ranger might come by, and of course, if it goes past quiet time, we’ll have to tell people to quiet down.”

Picture of Camel Pond at Apalachicola National Forest, taken from the shore line. Trees in background. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
The camp hosts also told us we didn’t need to worry about swimming in Camel Pond, because the gators there were small. Pro tip: Where you find baby gators, you will find a ferociously protective mama gator.

Later that night, we talk about our options which, if you’ve tried to get last-minute camping reservations in Florida during the summer during a pandemic, you know it isn’t easy. We fall asleep listening to the sound of nothing but the breeze in the pines.

The next day, I drive north to Torreya State Park. I’m curious to see how the Torreya tree fared since Hurricane Michael decimated its habitat. I also have some research questions about the Gregory House – namely, why the hell did CCC workers move it across the river – wasn’t there another house closer? (No, apparently.)

Torreya tree in Torreya State Park, Florida. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
If you think Torreya taxiflora looks like a teeny, tiny Christmas tree, you’re not alone. That cuteness, coupled with a vicious fungus, contributed to their almost-extinction. I photographed this tree in 2011; it did not survive Hurricane Michael in 2019.

At the park, I chat with Jason Vickery, the amazing park manager, and a park ranger (also amazing) about the Torreya and the forest health, and how copperhead bites are rarely fatal (who knew?) but nevertheless how nice it would be if the Nature Conservancy would send some indigo snakes up their way (indigos, aside from being gorgeous and nonvenomous, feed on venomous snakes, but are scarce because, to make a long story short, humans are pretty much the worst.)

After I’d talk them out (I really do love Florida’s state park rangers), I ask about local campground availability and explain our dilemma. They both suggested I the regional headquarters for the National Forest Service would want to know that the camp hosts were allowing fireworks and throwing cigarette butts on the ground, but I hesitate: Do I want to spend the night in the middle of nothingness with a couple who knew I’d complained about them? Would telling HQ matter?

Fun fact: Most Florida state parks have some campground inventory they hold for manager’s discretion. Typically it’s about 10% of the sites, and those can be for walk-ups or the manager’s discretion (don’t bank on these when camping!) The staff at Torreya offered us one such campsite, but it wouldn’t have worked – I drove and took a look, and it was too small for our trailer (which isn’t large, but the campground at Torreya SP isn’t large… remember, it was built during the Great Depression, when campers slept in tents or their cars, not campers.)

But that gave me an idea. I parked the car and pulled out my treasured Florida Gazetteer, the one I bought in 2008 for grad school (when you get a master’s degree in Florida this is a required textbook). Weak cell service wouldn’t let me peruse the state park website, but I can use an atlas, and soon enough, I’d landed on a park only a couple hours from the forest.

Close-up of map page from Florida Gazetteer, with highlighting on different roads. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
I bought my copy of the Florida Gazetteer in grad school. I mapped the routes from the 1939 “Guide to the Southernmost State” in it (as evidenced by blue highlighting) and even falling apart, I can’t bear to get a new one. It’s an invaluable travel tool if you really want to get on Florida’s backroads, where cell service is a luxury.

I called the park and threw myself on their mercy.

“I’m not supposed to tell you if we have that kind of site available tomorrow,” the man on the phone tells me, “But be here at 8 a.m.”

I ask some more questions and learn that this park has an ADA site available, and if I can get there before the park closes and no one else has claimed it, it’s ours for the night.

We packed the camper and got on the road in record time, pausing only to tell the camp hosts we would not return.

Where did we land? Look to the left of this screen, at the top, and click “subscribe” to never miss a post.

Camper with bikes on the back, set up for camping. Nissan Xterra in background, with two kayaks on top of it. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
It took us all of 30 minutes to pack the camper, disconnect, and head south to a state park, hoping for a last-minute campsite and a reprieve from fireworks.

The Great Miami Hurricane and COVID19

And yes, they are related.

For the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about the Hurricane of 1926 in Miami and how it relates to a global pandemic. 

The Hurricane of 1926 made landfall in Florida just before midnight on September 17, 1926. Most of the people in southeast Florida were new to the area (thanks, land boom!) and thus had never endured a hurricane but they hunkered down in their Miami homes as the first bands of the storm blew in from the Atlantic.

And then the eye passed over, and all was calm. Anxious to get out of their houses (if you’ve ever ridden out a hurricane you know the feeling), everyone went outside and checked on their neighbors and started clearing debris. 

U.S. National Weather Service Forecaster Richard Gray kept telling people that it wasn’t safe yet, to go inside, that the storm wasn’t over. But the people didn’t listen. The sky had cleared and the winds had all but come to a stop. Plus, they had work to do. They had destruction all around them, downed trees and construction debris everywhere (Miami and surrounding areas had quite a bit of construction happening at this time, again, yay, land boom.)

It must have felt vitally important to those folks that they do something. The storm had all but torn away all semblance of their normal lives, and they likely wanted to get back to normal as quickly as possible. How foolish was Gray, they must have thought, not to see that the storm had cleared. I have no proof of this, but I’m fairly certain at least one person probably suggested Gray was perpetrating a hoax to help get more money for National Weather Service funding come federal budget time. 

And so they left their homes and started clearing debris.

But after the eye comes, as every Floridian knows, the back side of the storm. And the back side of the storm is the worst part. When the second wave washed across Southeast Florida (literally; there was a 10-foot storm surge,) the people outside didn’t have time to seek adequate shelter. Gray had warned them, but there was no other warning before the winds picked up again and started blowing around all those downed trees and lumber from the first part of the hurricane. After the eye passed the and hurricane’s second half started, storm winds hurled those trees and lumber around at speeds of 155 MPH. 

The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 killed almost 400 people and injured more than 6,000 others. Damages totaled what would be, in today’s dollars, $164 billion. The storm damage propelled Florida into the Great Depression three years ahead of the rest of the country.

The Miami Hurricane didn’t only damage south Florida, however — it continued on to Pensacola, where it struck Florida again and raged for 20 hours on Sept. 20, destroying pretty much every wharf, building and boat in the city. After that, it finally made landfall a third time in Mobile, Alabama.

What gets me about this story is simple: They were warned. They were warned and they went outside anyway.

Smart Floridians know that the storm isn’t over just because the wind has stopped. Do with this story what you will, but me? I’m with Forecaster Gray, and I intend to ride out the rest of this storm in my house. 

Fact check me here

Hurricane Michael, the Torreya tree, and the loss of a species

The storm had some unintended — and devastating — consequences for a small but mighty endangered tree.

“There is unrest in the forest; there is trouble with the trees …” —“The Trees,” Neil Peart, Rush, 1978

“The Trees,” Neil Peart, Rush, 1978

Last year, I rescued a waffle plant from certain death. A collection of withered purple leaves stared up at me from rock-hard soil. Chalk it up to perimenopause, my handling stress in peculiar ways, a vein of a special kind of crazy running through my family, but I started to cry right there in the Walmart garden center. Even when the discount for “mostly dead plant” was only 10 percent, I still needed it.

“I couldn’t leave it there; no one else would buy it and it would just get thrown away,” I explained through sheepish tears to my husband, who has comforted me when a bird ate Dixie, our resident crab spider, and had learned that every insect in our Gulfport home gets a chance at a humane rescue and relocation.

“Did it press its nose against the window and wag its tail?” he asked.

I have a soft spot for underdog plants and animals. I’ve written before about my 17-year love affair with an Australian pine on the 7-Mile Bridge and how Fred — that’s his name, Fred — fared after Hurricane Irma. (Spoiler alert: He made it.)

Not every tree gets so lucky.

In my book Backroads of Paradise, I wrote about the torreya (rhymes with Gloria), a diminutive conifer listed as one of the most endangered on the planet. Half of the remaining torreya tree population exists within the confines of Torreya State Park north of Bristol. I wrote that the tree lived “one wildfire away from extinction.” I believed wildfire posed the largest threat to the tree’s existence. So did the park manager and conservationists.

Then Hurricane Michael happened.

The endangered torreya tree at the Gregory House at Torreya State Park north of Bristol. [cathy salustri]

At the onset, Michael looked like most tropical disturbances do in the late summer days the rest of the country calls autumn. Floridians know the drill, whether it comes from the local forecaster or an alert from the National Hurricane Center.

And Michael started just like that, but he wasn’t the same. He had sucked in what remained of Tropical Storm Kirk, with a center that formed and fell apart, formed and fell apart, then finally held. He bullied ahead, gaining steam and sucking in air and water until on Oct. 10 Michael came ashore at Tyndall Air Force Base roughly 70 miles southwest of Torreya State Park. He unleashed all that air and water on Mexico Beach first, drowning three people and pummeling the town’s 1,700 buildings, damaging all but 100 and destroying more than 800 before taking his wrath inland.

Hurricanes should weaken as they move over land. Michael didn’t weaken enough. He was the Biff Tannen of hurricanes; instead of punching Florida once, he kept hitting. Meteorologists clocked the tormentor’s winds at 161 miles per hour; by the time he made it to Torreya — closer to Georgia than Mexico Beach — they had barely slowed. No one inland expected the brunt of Michael’s wrath; six months after his torture, homes near Torreya still have blue tarps.

“Heavy, 155 mile per hour winds that far inland?” said Torreya State Park’s manager Jason Vickery. “Unheard of.”

Michael stomped through the park, toppling the tallest trees. The Gregory House, an 1850s house Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” moved across Apalachicola and hoisted up the ravine to its current location surveying the river, resisted Michael’s brutality.

Many of the torreya trees could not.

Torreya taxiflora — also called the Florida Nutmeg, stinking cedar or gopherwood — stands, on a good day, 10 feet tall. It’s endemic to Liberty, Jackson and Gadsden counties in Florida and Decatur in Georgia. It grows mostly on the steep slopes of ravines of the Apalachicola River ecosystem.

B.E. (Before EuroAmericans), the torreya numbered 650,000. Shortly after the earliest settlers near Rock Bluff discovered the tiny, cheerful conifer in the 1830s, locals started cutting them down for fence posts, shingles and Christmas trees. By the mid-20th century, the minikin showed signs of failing.

The first harbinger? Blight caused by fungus. Scientists tried to treat it, but trees kept dying. In all, 12 different fungi assault the torreya, and in 2010, scientists discovered a new, deadly one: Fusarium torreyae, a strange canker-type fungi. Coupled with climate change, development and the construction of Lake Seminole as a result of the Woodruff Dam, the lilliputian tree battled the odds daily, pushing back against a world that didn’t seem to want it.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared Torreya taxiflora endangered in 1984, a scholarly article in Bartonia detailed the remaining trees: 20 by the Gregory House, two in Columbus, Ga., a dozen at Tallahassee’s Maclay Gardens. The writers estimated perhaps 100 wild torreyas remained.

And so conservationists created a plan to save the species. And as you might expect, it gave lots of consideration to wildfire.

It made no provisions for hurricane-force winds.

Unlike other pines, torreyas aren’t fire-dependent. They are, however, canopy-dependent. Those big trees that tower over them? Necessary for the smaller tree’s survival. This is no Rush song; in this forest, the trees work together.

Michael broke that relationship. The blustery brute didn’t rip out torreya; he took a far more devious path. He pushed over larger trees and they killed the torreya, crushing the scraggly trees that, a shadow of their pre-mid-century selves, had nevertheless survived.

In the early part of this millennium, you would have heard the phrase “global warming” used to explain the species’ decline. That’s when a new group, the Torreya Guardians, started assisted migration, moving seedlings north. Trees planted in cooler climates do better. Instead of twigs with a few needles, these northern trees flourish, their full branches making it understandable why 19th century Floridians envisioned them as Christmas trees.

The endangered Torreya tree at Torreya State Park north of Bristol. [cathy salustri]

But assisted migration comes with no small amount of controversy. No one knows what torreyas will do in a new environment. Will they be the next kudzu? The conifer counterpart to the melaleuca? And most importantly, trees in cooler climes still contract Fusarium torreyae. The fungus could spread to other imperiled trees.

It’s almost a moot argument and a heart-shattering reality of climate change. Yes, the warming temperatures in the North Florida ravines stunt the growth of Torreya taxiflora, but at least it grows well out of reach of any perceived sea level rise, right? Even Michael didn’t dump floodwaters on the stunted pine trees.

Michael did much worse.

“Their whole habitat has changed,” Vickery said. “Eighty to 90 percent of the canopy is on the ground.” After the storm passed and rangers could make their way back to the park, they surveyed 288 trees. Eighteen percent of the trees that existed pre-Michael are dead or missing. Thirty-five trees died as a direct result of Hurricane Michael; 75 were directly impacted. “It was a catastrophic, unprecedented event,” Vickery said. “It was not foreseeable.”

And that’s the rub: Torreya taxiflora was already listed as “critically endangered” before Michael. Rangers have propped up some not-quite-dead trees as best they can, hoping they’ll survive. But even if they do? There’s no canopy to protect them; it’s deadfall, and with so much of it on the ground, wildfire is an issue. The remaining trees could vanish in an instant, stamped out like the flame at the end of a match.

The trees survived EuroAmericans, but barely. Now, life as they know it has changed once again.

Leigh Brooks helped found Torreya Keepers, a nonprofit that works with landowners to preserve the torreya’s genetic lines. She believes more torreyas may exist than we believe, but also said that estimates about how much time they have left are optimistic.

Torreya Keepers would like to find torreyas on private property.

“If a landowner thinks they might have torreyas, we’ll go out and document them,” Brooks said. Finding torreyas outside the park could make or break the species. Everyone wants to find a “buxom” tree, one with full branches and a thick trunk.

“For every one we find, we feel like champions. That’s potential genetics to add to the gene bank for the tree,” she said.

If the Keepers can get cuttings, they’ll send them to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, where Emily Coffey, vice president of conservation and research, and her team want to grow healthy torreyas and see them flourish in the wild. Coffey’s team roots the cuttings the Keepers send. They have 542 cuttings total and each helps preserve genetic diversity.

The plan, said Torreya State Park biologist Mark Ludlow, is to safeguard the tree from extinction. The hope is to one day reintroduce that nursery stock back onto the slope forest of the ravine. The hope, too, is that the tree can reproduce on its own — something it isn’t doing now.

Thanks to Fusarium torreyae, few trees reproduce on their own. Coffey said of the trees remaining in the wild, perhaps 15 produce cones. And these cones can make new trees, but not enough to sustain the population, making the tree functionally, reproductively extinct.

“They don’t get to reproductive size,” Ludlow said. The trees used to have trunks 12 to 15 inches in diameter, but today’s torreyas have trunks no bigger than a broomstick. That’s because the only trees growing are resprouting root stock.

Ludlow has never seen a torreya with a 12-inch trunk.

“They’re like California condors — an intensive care patient,” he said.

“Even the bigger ones,” Brooks said. “When we go back, they don’t look vigorous.”

A 22-foot-tall torreya did survive the storm, but that height isn’t the norm anymore.

“We get excited even to see a tree that’s 5 or 6 feet tall, but bushy,” Brooks says. “If the needles look good we get excited, even if it’s a runt.”

On Oct. 9, Torreya State Park had an estimated 420 trees. On Oct. 11, it had no more than 385, although Coffey suspects the real number falls closer to 370. Michael’s cruelty struck at the end of a 200-year struggle. Some estimate the torreya will go extinct in the wild by 2069; Brooks disagrees. She believes the tree that has charmed more than one biologist has less than a decade left on Earth.

Why is saving the tree important?

“Individual species matter,” Coffey said. “Biodiversity allows us to be resilient, adaptive and resourceful.”

Maybe we’re watching a dinosaur in its final days. After all, that Fusarium torreyae isn’t a nonnative fungus; it’s brand new. And it’s not like the long-leaf pine’s decimation, which impacted gopher tortoise and red-cockaded woodpeckers. If torreya trees disappeared tomorrow, as far as we know, it wouldn’t adversely affect other creatures.

Therein lies the rub: As far as we know. Once, the tree played a vital role in the Apalachicola River Basin, but no one knows how the tree supported — and may still help — the ecosystem.

Maybe the torreya has no place in this world, or maybe it does and we just don’t know what that purpose is yet. As Coffey said, “once you lose a species, you cannot go backwards.”

I glanced over at the waffle plant, new leaves stretching toward the eastern sun. It was trapped in a pot; it will never propagate. No animals needed this plant, no forests depended on it. It made no difference to anything else on the planet.

But it made a difference to me.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6 print edition of the Tampa Bay Times. Read the original here.