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A building built on steel footings ready for hurricane force winds.
Information icon The rebuilt Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge visitor's center built to withstand future storms.

Service facilities built to withstand nature’s worst

Hurricanes are never welcome, but they can prompt changes in buildings to make them better, stronger, and more capable of handling high water and even higher winds.

A boat mooring in the middle of a road.
A boat mooring washed ashore on Summerland Key, Florida. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has made constructing and rebuilding facilities to weather hurricanes a priority. Recent storms in the United States show that the Service’s money and effort have been well-spent.

Structures battered a dozen years ago by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, then rebuilt to tighter construction standards, so far have withstood this year’s storms. The same is true of buildings in harm’s way in 2008, when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike rolled across coastal Louisiana and Texas.

A huge visitors center built on steel footings.
Rebuilding the Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge visitor’s center. Photo by USFWS.

Smart building, smart use of materials, smart use of money: That has made the difference in how Service facilities have so far fared in the 2017 hurricane season, said Brian Ellington, the Service’s top engineer in Region 4. Comprising 10 Southeastern states, plus Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the region has twice this year taken it on the chin: Hurricane Irma, followed by Maria.

Another hurricane, Harvey, came close to the region, making landfall in Louisiana. It also hit Texas, located in a different Service region.

“The building codes have gotten much tighter in terms of what’s required” to erect structures in hurricane-prone areas, Ellington said. “We follow the codes.”

A modular bunkhouse built with concrete and metal.
New bunkhouse at Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge after Katrina and Rita in 2005. Photo by USFWS.

There may be no better example than structures at the National Key Deer Refuge in the Florida Keys. The refuge, home to the cute and federally endangered Key deer, got hit by high winds, torrential rains and a storm surge upwards of 4 feet when Hurricane Irma came ashore in September.

“Overall, we were pretty fortunate,” said Dan Clark, the Keys refuge manager. “Some of our structures are pretty tough. We had some water intrusion and mold and we need some repairs, but we didn’t have a whole lot of houses and offices destroyed.”

Exhibit A: the refuge’s administration building, erected to replace the structure destroyed in 2005’s triple-punch of storms. A fortress of concrete, metal roof and all-weather shutters perched 16 feet above the storm surge line, the building suffered only minor leaks this time around.

“That,” said Clark, “is a testament to tougher building codes.”

The new visitor’s center along U.S. 1 on Big Pine Key, a modular building with concrete piers built atop relatively high ground, suffered nary a scratch from the storm.

A concrete and metal building with only its sign out of place.
Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex after Irma. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

The refuge did not escape without injury. Irma damaged a handful of refuge-owned homes on Key deer refuge. It all but destroyed the workshop/bunk house at the so-called Nut Farm, a former coconut plantation that serves as maintenance base for the 8,500-acre refuge. Damage to the building alone nears an estimated $1.8 million. A wooden boat ramp and dock must also be replaced at a cost of $572,000.

A small bungalo with damage from fallen trees.
National Key Deer Refuge bunkhouse. Photo by USFWS.

Most of the complex reopened for business Nov. 1. Repairs and replacements, though, will take time.

“You have to rebuild correctly,” Clark said. “You can’t pick the cheap option and run the risk of hurting people and losing buildings.”

The Service is committed to smart expenditures, said Mike Oetker, the Southeast Region’s acting regional director.

“Our managers and leaders for more than 20 years have perfected response to big storms like Irma and Maria,” he said. “They’ve also built a strong track record for smart recovery rebuilding facilities to the strongest hurricane standards and in some cases also relocating them to more secure areas.

“The result is that we save a lot money because we don’t have to rebuild those structures later.”

Other refurbished/rebuilt structures include:

  • Replacement staff housing at J.N. “Ding” Darling NWR in Sanibel, Florida. The storms of 2005 swept away the original bunkhouse, built in the 1960s. The Service replaced it with two buildings. They were erected to avoid storm surges, and feature impact-resistant doors and windows. Each is built of concrete.
A man working on a newly constructed home.
Employee residences on J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge were rebuilt to withstand severe storms. Photo by USFWS.
  • The Delta NWR headquarters in Venice, Louisiana. The building is located at the mouth of the Mississippi River, outside a series of protective levees. The System replaced gravel parking lots and adjacent sites with concrete, stabilizing the tract and making it less susceptible to flood-related scouring.
  • Gator Lake observation tower, Bon Secour NWR, Gulf Shores, Alabama. In the 2008 hurricane season, the refuge lost a bird-watching tower overlooking Gator Lake. The Service replaced it with a stronger pavilion. To date, it has weathered a series of storms without incurring any damages.
A new wooden observation deck at the edge of a lake.
The reconstructed observation tower at Gator Lake on Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.

The Service has overseen other projects in hurricane-prone areas, and is ready to handle more, said Ellington, the district engineer. In the past, he said, the Service has done “good stuff.”

If necessary, it’s ready to repeat the process.

A newly constructed home.
Residence at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. The home was rebuilt one mile inland to mitigate the risk of flooding from storm surge. Photo by USFWS.


Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist, (404) 679-7291

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

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