Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma

Gary Meyer | Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Labor Day, a Federal holiday, was on a Monday this year, and it so happened that I had the following Friday off from work. It only made sense to take the three days in between as vacation days. That way I had 9 days off from work with only the cost of three vacation days worth of hours.

It is not that I had big plans. I figured I would go fishing once or twice, but other than that there was no major reason other than a break. The fact that I did not have elaborate plans actually was part of the attraction: I just wanted to relax. It has been an uncomfortable summer and one that allowed for little recreational enjoyment. I didn’t expect the fishing conditions to be any more attractive and the unscheduled time left opportunity for something unexpected… unfortunately I was right about that part.

As it turned out I did go fishing right at the beginning with TA in his boat.  That trip could be a fodder for a write-up on its own, but we can save the details for later. Let's just say it was educational. It proved one old saw: “All that glitters is not gold”. And, it disproved another: “With age comes wisdom”. Hopefully, TA’s cracked ribs will heal before the winter big tarpon season.


Once that was over I was free and clear to do whatever I wanted. Or so I thought.


It turned out that Hurricane Irma was becoming the pop culture star of the local media. It was still far out in the Atlantic, almost a week away, but it was a strong storm with potential to be a problem. As the days went along the meteorological predictors kept suggesting that it could hit South Florida. At first, I thought the chances were minimal. How could something as unpredictable as a hurricane possibly hit what the weather gurus thought it was aiming at that far in the future?


Well, as time went along it just got worse and worse until there was an actual panic in South Florida. The predicted tracks would not let up, and they kept getting more apocalyptical for South Florida.


Since I had plenty of time I just eased the storm shutters into place over a few days. I did the west side of the house in the mornings and the east side in the evening. Most went up without a hitch, I did not worry about which window or sequence the panels might have been labeled; as long as they were the right length for the window they went up. It was necessary as less than half still bore labels after sitting for the dozen or so years since Hurricane Wilma. After the panels were up I put the yard in order so nothing could fly about.


As the weekend drew near the panic started to get to me too. Irma became a huge category 5 storm and seemed determined to break right through the back door of SE Florida. I decided to go “full metal jacket” and even shutter the sliding glass doors on the covered porch. The only panels I did not attach were for the kitchen window and door. Even so, those panels were stacked on the porch at the ready if they were needed.


Since I had planned on a vacation, the van was already topped off with fuel. So, I dug out the Honda generator that had been mothballed like the shutters. It started right up. The chainsaw was another matter though. It never got past the priming stage since the clear plastic priming bulb split on the first push. I would have to wait for a replacement bulb to be delivered… going to the hardware store was out of the question. Other than that all I did was get out the camping gear. I had 55 gallons of water in the backyard in a barrel and minimal food in the house. I figured I was set. If things got real bad I would just move into the water plant where I work and where I would be needed. Coincidentally, once there, I would have plenty of water and electricity.


Waiting for the storm was boring torture. I watched TV interspersed with online videos of AT through-hikers, and drank beer. I thought, incorrectly, that was going to be the worst part of the ordeal.


The day of the storm, Sunday, as the winds picked up the electricity went out at 8:00 AM sharp. I waited to start up the generator. Instead, I took a ring-side seat to the event: the nook on the front porch was almost perfectly protected. So, I spent the majority of the day sitting outside on a folding chair, drinking a few beers, and watching the storm tear through. Only occasionally would a stray breeze, usually after a strong gust was winding down, hook around the wall and blow my skirt up.


The show was spectacular and contemplative. The storm actually veered west just below Florida and cut across the Middle Keys, and only then came ashore around Marco Island on the SW coast. Supposedly we here on the SE coast got lucky and had the “easy” side of the storm. If so, I am really glad we did not get the “hard” side. There were some gusts that were quite impressive. The amount of water in the street was a record for my 30 years of occupation here… it almost made it up to the top of my driveway. I’m sure there was some tidal surge in the nearby river so the water had no place to drain, but the amount of water that came from above was amazing. It felt like being under the nozzle of a pressure washer. The fact the orifice of the nozzle was around 100 miles in diameter made it all the more impressive.


I had nothing to do but watch, think, and marvel. I got the impression that man may be able to do astounding things to the surface of the earth, like dam big rivers or tunnel through mountains and under small seas, but the atmosphere as of yet cannot be controlled. We might be affecting it, maybe to our detriment, but it seems like it could regain equilibrium quite easily. The entire event was a massive demonstration of re-allotment of resources. Much like a fire in the Everglades, what might seem like a tremendously sad act of destruction is quite likely is an intense episode of purge, redistribution, and eventually regrowth. I got the feeling that the earth can easily destroy our infrastructure and regain control much faster than we will be able to rebuild.


I might be wrong, but it seems like all the great extinction events that have taken place on the earth were all, eventually, at the hand of the atmosphere. The possibility that we are messing with it might be something we should consider, and soon, instead of debating whether we really are or not. No one, rich or poor, simple or empowered, will survive if the atmospheric tax collector calls. This event seems like it was just a hint.


The aftermath was boring and more work than getting ready. The amount of destruction to my halo of native hardwood hammock trees was sad to observe but I know they will mostly survive. It was easy to spot non-native trees as they were unable to withstand the winds. The natives, being low, flexible, and deep-rooted look like they will bounce back quickly. It took days to clean up the easy stuff. It will take many more days of tree work to clear the suspended snapped-off branches of the non-native Black Olive trees that dominate my yard. It’s a good thing I consider climbing a secondary recreational activity. It just might be time to pony up for a high-end arborist chainsaw though.


The destruction all over mainland Southeast Florida is quite impressive but appears to mostly be limited to vegetation. Unfortunately, that is not the case in the Keys where the storm first and directly made US landfall. I personally have not viewed what has happened down there but the early reports are quite sad. There is a lot of destruction to infrastructure and homes. There are two State Parks down there that are very dear to my heart and I am sure they will never be the same.


The Everglades coast took a brutal beating. The National Park is closed until further notice. I have personally witnessed what two previous hurricanes (Andrew and Wilma) did to it. Those storms were bad but this unquestionably will be much worse. Neither hit the park as directly as Irma. Recovery from Wilma back in 2005 was still not complete to this day.


I am quite sure that the fishing that I have been enjoying for that last few years is a thing of the past. The places I managed to access will be unreachable for years. It is unlawful, actually a federal offense, to cut mangrove trees and they will have folded into the small creeks due to the storm-surge tides undercutting the stream banks. Broken branches and tree trunks will fold overhead like intertwined fingers. The good news is they rot relatively quickly in our tropical environment. It will be only a matter of years, but by then I will be approaching or in my 70s and, most likely, physically unable to handle the paddling and bushwhacking required. The silver lining is the knowledge that the fish I have come to know will remain unmolested for quite some time.


I knew the day was coming when I would have to give in to time and trade my canoes for a more conventional motorboat. Maybe, this is it? The main question is: what am I going to do this upcoming fall and winter? It is the same question all of the other anglers who fish the mangrove coast are asking themselves today, for even with a flats skiff access to the ‘glades is going to be very limited.


I will, of course, go down as soon as possible to see what happened. Daily satellite photos from before and after the storm suggest massive destruction to the mangroves fronting Florida Bay. However, drastic changes to larger structures like creeks and bays are not apparent. I halfway expected some new river mouths would form. The beaches appear to have been widened significantly, and the distance that flotsam was scattered up and over them seems beyond belief.

Back in the 1960s, the same area was impacted by two large hurricanes: Donna in 1960 and Betsy in 1965. There was a park biologist studying Everglades National Park at that time and he documented the events in detail. His documentation is sobering. The immediate destruction of vegetation, while impressive and depressing, was just the first of many steps in the reorganization of the plant communities. The distribution of salt and oxygen starving muds was not apparent for months, but they eventually took a much larger toll.


I guess the only option is to look at this in the big picture. Hurricanes have been interacting with the Everglades for thousands of years. It's hard to imagine, but much of the mangrove jungle that I have been exploring was regrowth from a complete leveling that took place back in the 60s at the hands of those hurricanes listed above. I expect the next few years will be quite shocking for all of us.