Service makes headway in Hurricane Michael repairs
St. Marks, Florida — The images of Hurricane Michael’s rampage across the Panhandle have been seared, by now, into the nation’s collective consciousness: the roofless homes; the mountains of debris; the long lines of anguished people; and the miles of chopped-in-half trees.
The worst of the damage came courtesy of winds nearing 155 mph. Michael’s counter-clockwise punch, though, pushed water from the Gulf of Mexico deep inland, swamping small towns, barrier islands and wildlife refuges, particularly along Michael’s eastern edge. Long stretches of U.S. 98 between Tyndall Air Force Base and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge remained closed Tuesday, testament to an angry Gulf’s power to rip apart concrete.
“There was very clearly a strong storm surge. Low-lying areas were inundated,” said Bradley Smith, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We definitely had some high water when you see fish in the road.”
He was trekking through ankle-high salt water, along a normally sandy track leading to the historic Pierce cabin on St. Vincent’s National Wildlife Refuge. The gulf sat 100 yards away. The tiny fish would die once the pond evaporated in the summer-like sun.
The cabin was still standing, as were the bat house and a metal building. Not so a flipped-over compost outhouse and small shed with peeled-away roof. The other end of the island fared worse with a floating dock having floated away. The wooden “chicken shack” (the check-in station for hunters) was demolished. Generators, metal chairs, fencing, corrugated roofing, batteries and propane tanks were tossed about. The island’s other compost toilet was also trashed.
“We got a pretty significant hit over here,” Smith said. “It looks bad.”
Trees were toppled across the island, impeding travel on refuge roads. The cabin’s rain gauge registered nearly 6 inches. In nearby Apalachicola, an old oyster town hard along the Gulf, the storm surge was estimated at seven feet.
The surge, and the damage, lessened the further east one traveled.
The 70,000-acre St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, at first blush, looks unscathed. A closer look, though, reveals trouble. The surging waters pushed the wrack line — the assemblage of seaweed, marsh grass, shells and trash deposited at high tide — as much as four miles inland. Freshwater ponds were inundated by salty gulf water.
The refuge’s levees were gouged and nearly impassable in a dozen spots. Wind and water swept away stairs at the lighthouse. The Lighthouse Road will have to be patched and cleared before hordes of visitors can again descend upon the iconic white tower. Joe Reinman, a refuge biologist for nearly 40 years, said the storm surge was the worst since the levees were built in 1931.
Repairs were well underway Tuesday at St. Marks and St. Vincent as both remained closed to the public. Backhoes, dump trucks, chainsaws and Service personnel from refuges across the Southeast targeted St. Marks, popular with Tallahassee residents 25 miles away. (The cavalry may reach St. Vincent later this week.) Project leaders at both refuges were mostly confident that upcoming hunting seasons would go on as planned. And the Oct. 27 Monarch Butterfly Festival at St. Marks is on.
Damage to levees and outhouses pales in comparison, of course, to the destruction visited upon Mexico Beach, Panama City and Lynn Haven by Hurricane Michael. The Service has deployed upwards of 30 sawyers, swampers, backhoe operators, roof fixers and safety officers in Panama City, including Anthony DiMaggio.
He’s a wildland firefighter who runs the prescribed fire program at Tyndall Air Force Base outside Panama City. The Service deploys fire experts on Florida’s eight Air Force installations to carefully burn their forests, restore longleaf pine habitat and boost chances that at-risk species, including gopher tortoises, will thrive. It’s the most expansive such program in the United States.
Tyndall, though, was hit hard by Michael. Hangars, barracks, the marina, elementary school and commissary were destroyed. Some F-22 Raptors may also have been damaged. Tyndall, the base commander said, was “devastated.”
So too was DiMaggio. He drove U.S. 98, which runs through Tyndall, and was stupefied by the damage, particularly to the miles of pine trees bent in half by the wind’s force. A wind gauge at Tyndall’s airport registered a gust of 129 mph during the hurricane before it blew away.
DiMaggio pulled over along the base’s eastern border, near Mexico Beach, got out of his truck and walked into the field of neatly arrayed, yet badly broken slash trees.
“A week ago this was a beautiful pine flatwoods,” he said. “But there’s nothing there anymore. It’s horrible. I mean it’s just completely gone.”
He’d like to help salvage the forest, replant trees and restore precious habitat for the tortoises, red cockaded woodpeckers and other threatened or endangered species. But that’s not likely anytime soon.
Sami Gray, in charge of the Service’s Hurricane Michael recovery team, said DiMaggio will return to Tyndall one day to conserve its 20,000 acres of forest.
“They’re a major partner with us not only in fire, but in biology too,” she said. “There’s definitely a role for us.”
Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
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