It may not seem like it, but four months have already passed since Hurricane Irma ripped a path of destruction through the Caribbean islands and deep into Florida.
The category four storm devastated Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys with high winds before dumping a torrential rainstorm across the Southeast. The powerful cyclone’s wrath was felt by millions, and even today, many in the hardest hit areas are still without power. Thousands more have been left homeless.
Humans were not the only ones who faced the impact of this intense storm. Coral reefs in the Virgin Islands were demolished, swept away by powerful waves. Dry Tortugas National Park saw a portion of Fort Jefferson collapse into the sea. As mentioned in a recent article, Biscayne National Park had trails closed, and downed trees littered the visitor areas. Everglades National Park, the crown jewel of South Florida’s wild areas, saw the worst damage. Mangrove forests along the shore of Florida Bay were stripped of all foliage, leaving branches dry and bare in the hot sun. Park trails, roads, and visitor areas were submerged under feet of water that would take months to recede. Visitor centers were severely damaged and remained closed for months.
The Everglades are a resilient ecosystem, so it will simply be a matter of time before the effects of Irma are discernible only to a trained eye. When we visited the park in early December, many areas had already begun the long road to recovery. Alligators swam in the pond at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. White Egrets rested in the trees above the park entrance sign, and the resident mosquitos occasionally buzzed in our ears. Visitors who were willing could drive the thirty-eight miles to the Flamingo area on the shores of Florida Bay, but they would find no visitor facilities open. Most other park areas were closed to the public as the flood waters had yet to recede.
Now a month later, much of Everglades has reopened and is ready for visitors who want to take advantage of the area’s dry season. See, Everglades is the only subtropical area in the continental U.S. and has only two seasons. From December until April, sunshine prevails. Fields are dry as water levels recede. Daily thunderstorms, rising waters, and unbearable humidity throughout the summer and fall months make outdoor activities a challenge during the wet season. Not to mention the clouds of giant mosquitoes!
Visiting during the dry season also allows park guests to witness the greatest variety of birds, as many species migrate here to raise their young. Spoonbills, hawks, and the resident anhinga all flock to the park in huge numbers during this time. While the birds are perhaps the most famous residents of the Everglades and the impetus for the park’s establishment in 1947, don’t forget to look for the park’s other inhabitants. River otters frolic in the waters of Shark Valley. You won’t be seeing any sharks here, but keep your eyes open for alligators. Dolphins and manatees are friendly and always fun to see; your best chance to spot them are near the mangrove forests along the shoreline and farther out in Florida Bay. Crocodiles, Florida Panthers, and non-native anacondas are some of the more nefarious creatures which call the park home, although it’s very rare to see them.
The park is divided into three main areas: the Gulf Coast south of Fort Meyers, Shark Valley on the northern side of the park, and the main park entrance near Homestead. The visitor facilities in Gulf Coast suffered the most damage from the storms and are scheduled to be completely demolished in the imminent future. The National Park Service has set up a visitor contact station to serve as a makeshift visitor center until the amenities can be rebuilt. This area serves as the gateway to the Thousand Islands, perhaps the best example of a healthy mangrove estuary. It is the northern terminus of the Wilderness Waterway, a canoe trail which meanders almost a hundred miles along the southern shore to connect with Flamingo.
Shark Valley is accessible from U.S. 41 near Big Cypress National Preserve and is home to the park’s main observation tower. Similar to the spire atop Clingmans Dome, it offers a supreme vantage point to take in the amazing sight of the River of Grass as it flows from Lake Okeechobee down to the bay. A park-operated tram takes visitors along a loop road, also open to the more adventurous who may wish to walk or bike it and have a closer look at the wildlife. While much of this area was flooded, it finally reopened soon after our visit.
Main Park Road offers a scenic drive through the largest variety of ecosystems, beginning in the pine forests just outside Homestead and ending at Flamingo on the edge of Florida Bay. Visitors should stop at the Ernest F. Coe or Royal Palm Visitor Centers and speak with the rangers to best plan their trip. There are still many areas which suffer damage and may present hazards to the unprepared. Hiking trails, picnic areas, and overlooks line both sides of the highway as it winds its way toward the coast. The visitor center and amenities at Flamingo have resumed operation within the last few weeks, but it’s best to come prepared, as many services are still quite limited.
Park officials want everyone to know that the park is safe to visit, but that guests should still take precautions. Bring all water you will need, as potable water has not yet been fully restored to all areas. Many guided tours have resumed operation or are scheduled to in the near future. Speak with a ranger or check the park’s website at www.nps.gov/ever to get the latest info on park services and conditions. While it will take years for Everglades National Park to recover, we can still enjoy everything that this unique American wilderness has to offer.