Photos of damage and recovery efforts at Everglades National Park following Hurricane Irma. Photo Source: NPS / Flickr
On September 10 2017, Hurricane Irma swept through Florida as a Category 4 storm, devastating park infrastructure and toppling trees in Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Park, Biscayne National Park and Dry Tortugas National Park.
At that time, some 350 National Park Service (NPS) employees were on the ground to respond to immediate recovery needs, such as conducting damage assessments and removing debris. One group that also stepped up to help was South Florida National Parks Trust (SFNPT), a Friends Group based in Miami, FL that partners with the NPS.
Immediately following the hurricane, the SFNPT worked with the Community Foundation of Collier County to establish a fund to aid NPS employees in Big Cypress National Park affected by the storm. In that first month, SFNPT raised $25,000 to support disaster recovery efforts for South Florida national parks and help NPS employees replace lost possessions as well as make repairs to their homes and vehicles.
SFNPT also worked with Eastern National, a regional public lands nonprofit partner, to raise funds through the National Park Service Employee and Alumni Trust, which offers relief to all NPS employees affected by major disasters. As the on-the-ground partner for South Florida’s national parks, SFNPT is helping ensure that a portion of the funds collected nationally go to help NPS employees at the local level.
In addition, Don Finefrock, Executive Director for SFNPT, explained that the group was able to help NPS employees on-the-ground immediately after the storm.
“After the hurricane, park staff were working in hot, humid weather to get these parks open again,” Finefrock said. “As a Friends Group, we were able to keep them hydrated and we provided pallets of water and Gatorade to keep them going.”
SFNPT also provided cleanup supplies for recovery efforts and, on September 30, 2017 for National Public Lands Day, SFNPT partnered with Biscayne National Park to lead 150+ volunteers for a cleanup event. These volunteers cleared debris from the shoreline’s mangrove forest and visitor boardwalks.
National Public Lands Day volunteers at Biscayne National Park.
Shifting From Immediate to Long-Term Recovery Needs
While the four national parks in South Florida are open to the public, many of the park buildings and trails are condemned or in need of major repairs.
The Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades National Park will need to be demolished and rebuilt due to eight feet of flooding in its interior. Prior to the storm, the center served as a gateway for exploring a maze of mangrove islands and waterways known as Ten Thousand Islands, and included educational displays, as well as a bookstore run by Florida National Parks Association.
Now, SFNPT looks to play a role in fundraising to replace this building.
Flamingo Visitor Center in Everglades National Park also suffered major damage, including a stripped roof. The building was built in the 1960’s as part of a “Mission 66” program to modernize parks for new generations of park visitors. In 2016, SFNPT received a $250,000 grant from the Partners in Preservation: National Parks campaign to restore the building (due to damage it received from Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005) but now the building will need additional support to complete the planned restoration.
In spite of the seemingly overwhelming needs of these parks post-Irma, SFNPT is optimistic about the opportunities to repair and enhance them.
“What we have noticed is a well-spring of affection for these parks,” said Finefrock. “People have history here. These parks provide inspiration and spur the imagination; they are places people want to preserve.”
A stand of Cypress trees in Everglades National Park.
How SFNPT Looks to the Next Generation to Preserve the Parks
In addition to the fundraising campaigns that are forthcoming to support the parks, SFNPT is also launching its first cohort of leaders through its National Parks Ambassadors Program this month.
Through this program, 12 professionals under the age of 40, from diverse backgrounds in the Miami area, will engage in a six-month program to visit the parks, learn about the parks’ ecology and environmental issues and then become ambassadors for these areas.
“There are at least six million people in South Florida,” Finefrock said. “What we want to do is create a sense of passion for these young people and empower them to spread that knowledge and appreciation for the parks in their communities,” he explained.
The program will provide opportunities for networking and mentoring while introducing the ambassadors to the unique outdoor environments in South Florida. In addition, the ambassadors will also participate in a project that benefits both the parks and their communities to establish deeper connections between urban areas and outdoor spaces.
Once the ambassadors have completed the program, SFNPT will invite them to serve on an advisory council to build engagement opportunities and to be a voice for the parks in their communities.
“South Florida’s national parks have a long road to recovery,” Finefrock said. “Through funding projects that aid visitor services and through helping generate awareness and a sense of commitment to these places, we are excited to see these places thrive,” he said.
To learn more about South Florida National Parks Trust and to support their efforts to recover and enhance South Florida's national parks, visit their website at https://www.southfloridaparks.org.