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Palm and mangrove trees snapped like twigs.
Information icon Damaged palm trees and mangroves on Cudjoe Key, Florida. Photo by Glenn Fawcett, U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Service employees joining Irma response effort

3 teams of employees securing FWS assets, supporting local citizens and communities in Florida

Two men wearing hardhats.
Jon Wallace and Chris Lewzader, a biotech at Wheeler NWR, watch crews clear a field. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Big Pine Key, Florida – It had all the makings of a thankless, dangerous and depressing task, but Jon Wallace knew – or thought he knew – what he was facing.

Hurricane Irma, all 180 mph of her, scoured the Florida Keys, laying waste to life and home, and it was Wallace’s job to bring order to the wildlife refuges here and the people who love and work for them.

“It’s going to look like a bomb went off,” he said Wednesday as he entered the Keys. “It won’t be pretty.”

Wallace hit the road at 5:30 a.m. for the final 200-mile push to this bruised and battered lower key. He’d worked a half-dozen other hurricanes, including big, bad Katrina, and, as a deputy regional fire coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had experienced many natural and unnatural disasters.

A large delivery truck flipped on its side.
An overturned truck on the bridge to No Name Key. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

As he drove south past Palm Beach, Miami and Homestead, Wallace created a list of Hurricane Irma recovery priorities in his mind, a list that would surely change, but one that proved successful in the past. Make sure employees are safe. Inspect homes and buildings. Clear roads. Find staging areas for equipment. Help the community.

Once he hit the Keys, the awful TV images and newspaper stories jumped to life. The farther south Wallace drove along U.S. 1, the more damage he saw. Boats flung far from their moorings. Power poles snapped like twigs. Roofs ripped off; trailer homes pancaked. National guardsmen managing the dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Irma came ashore at Cudjoe Key and targeted Big Pine Key to the east. Those keys are home to the National Key Deer Refuge and the lovable, and endangered, Key deer. The damage was horrific. Oddly, though, much of the 9,200-acre refuge, along with most Service buildings, weathered Irma well.

Two USGS employees approach curious key deer.
At National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge on Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys. Photo by Garry Tucker, USFWS.

“I thought it would be a war zone,” Wallace said, at day’s end. “But we dodged a bomb.”

‘We can help them’

Irma’s rampage across the Florida, Georgia and South Carolina left 31 dead and damage in the billions of dollars. The Category 4 monster destroyed one-quarter of the homes in the Keys, according to FEMA, with 65 percent suffering major damage. Local officials say the damage wasn’t as bad.

Like any hurricane, though, Irma was fickle. One community, like No Name Key – also part of Key Deer refuge – was hammered with houses newly roof-less, trucks toppled and roads impassable. Key Largo, at the island chain’s north end, hummed with life Thursday with power and cell service restored. Damage, generally, was worse the farther south along U.S. 1.

A small mouse like rodent hanging on to a tree branch.
The federally endangered Key Largo woodrat. Photo courtesy of Clay DeGayner.

Wallace, 49, enumerated the dangers facing the army of Fish and Wildlife Service workers headed Florida’s way: tropical heat; falling trees; live wires; snakes; stray propane tanks; and the rash-producing poisonwood trees – “poison ivy on steroids.”

“My motto to live by: slow, but steady. Safe and sure,” he said. “Don’t stop. Keep plugging away. If you get in too big a hurry, you get hurt. My main thing is to look out for everybody and make sure they make it through the day.”

Two initial response teams were first on the scene once Irma quit the Keys early in the week. The law-enforcement guys checked on survivors (all Service employees evacuated), opened roads, secured buildings and maintained the peace.

Wallace and Tyler Henderson, a safety specialist, were next. The Incident Command team, headed up by Sami Gray, arrived Thursday with an armada of trucks, chainsaws, heavy equipment and provisions. In all, Service employees from national wildlife refuges, the fire program and law enforcement, made their way to Big Pine Key.

Wallace and Henderson hit the Key Deer refuge by late Wednesday morning, but not before one of the namesake animals meandered across the headquarters road. Uncertain and skittish, the doe entered a thicket of downed trees and roof shingles alongside a bank. All utility poles were down. A nearby church lost its marquee and its 12-foot metal cross was bent in half.

Steve Berger, a federal wildlife officer, was waiting for Wallace. Irma punctured a small hole in the headquarters roof. A floating dock rolled up like a taco, but damage otherwise appeared minimal. Water rose 2.5 feet under Berger’s adjoining house on stilts, which lost one-third of its roof tiles.

A dock left crumpled after the storm surge receded.
A dock at National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key in Florida. Photo by Sallie Gentry, USFWS.

“But we got out with our lives and most of our belongings. Other people were worse off,” said Berger, a generator humming in the background.

“We can help them; that’s where we can make a big impact and really show we care about where we live.”

Wallace and Henderson drove slowly through the refuge, its trees denuded by Irma’s fury, to check on the maintenance guy’s house. The roof was punctured. Yellow siding had ripped away in spots. Upturned trees and broken limbs littered the yard.

“We got some work to do on that one,” Wallace said.

Next stop: The Nut Farm.

It’s the work center, actually, with storage sheds, heavy equipment, boats, trucks and other equipment needed to maintain a refuge. The site of an old coconut tree farm, the office building was beyond repair with doors blown off and roof destroyed. Everything else, though, withstood Irma’s wrath in working order. Wallace decided the Nut Farm would make a fine staging area for the chainsaws, dump trucks and other heavy equipment en route to Big Pine Key. But first it would have to be cleaned of debris and downed trees.

Heavy machinery clearing debris from a field.
Clearing a staging area on Big Pine Key. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

“This is another place to prioritize,” he noted.

Then it was on to the Service’s brand-new visitor center out on the highway. With the Service’s support, the Florida National Guard is using its facilities and space to support two dozen guardsmen hunkered down across the wood floors. Two 18-wheelers dispersed water and food to worn-out locals grateful for sustenance and support amid the tropical torpor.

Wallace needed space for 15 Fish and Wildlife Service guys to crash for the foreseeable future. He made a deal with the Guard’s commanding officer: Clear out some space for my guys and I’ll get the power – and, most important, the air conditioning – running.


‘We’re a team’

Back on the road, Wallace and Henderson paid a visit to the Emergency Operations Center in nearby Marathon. A cacophonous whirl of local, state and federal recovery officials crammed into the Monroe County commission chambers. That’s where Wallace found Louis Caputo. He had worked closely with Caputo during the Key deer screwworm incident earlier this year. Connections prove invaluable during disasters.

“Anything you can do to open up the roads on Big Pine and places south would be a big help,” said Caputo, the man in charge. “Help out where you can. Anything you can do for me and anything I can do for you, let’s do it. We’re a team.”

Wallace promised Caputo the Service’s backhoes and dump trucks would help clear Monroe County’s roads.

A shed on the side of a road next to some downed power lines.
Scenes of destruction on Big Pine Key. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

He headed back to Big Pine Key. The calming blue-green waters of the Atlantic Ocean belied the destruction on land. Jimmy Buffett, naturally, served as the radio background music. But this wasn’t Margaritaville.

It was every RV in a trailer park on Bahia Honda Key toppled. It was mobile homes opened up like sardine cans. It was the putrescence of low-tide mangrove swamps, fetid pools of contaminated water and spilled sewage. It was the paradise of the Keys turned into a temporary nightmare.

It could’ve been worse, especially for the refuge lands and employees’ homes. Thursday was spent tarping roofs, clearing refuge roads and readying the staging areas for heavy equipment. Wallace had it all in hand.

“This is where the eye came in, the strongest part of the storm,” he said while searching for an employee’s home on Cudjoe Key. “We can spend some time in here cleaning up. We clear out that road and we’ll be good neighbors too.”


Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist, (404) 679-4028

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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