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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Andrew and the Environment

Air Date: Week of

Alexis Muellner reports from Miami on the impact of Hurricane Andrew on the Everglades and other parts of the South Florida ecosystem. Hurricanes have been part of the region's natural cycle for millennia, but intensive development in recent decades has eroded the ecosystem's ability to bounce back from Andrew's devastation.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

As a North American gateway for tropical storms, South Florida has endured the battering of hurricanes for thousands of years. . . and with each big blow, the peninsula's ecosystem has bounced back. But in the past century. . . and in particular the thirty years since the last big hurricane hit. . . its landscape has been transformed by heavy development. So Hurricane Andrew devastated not only homes and businesses, but also a radically changed ecosystem---one whose ability to recover from storms has been compromised. From Miami, Alexis Muellner reports.

(Natural sound under; boat radio: "Metro Dade RV Manatee. . .")

MUELLNER: At Miami's devastated Dinner Key Marina, a coastal inspection team from Dade County DERM or the Department of Environmental Resources Management, motors slowly by the docks. Debris coasts the twisted-tree-lined shore. Stray boats are wedged in the mangroves, and a thin oil-like sheen covers the water. Every day since the storm struck, the team has been out here on Biscayne Bay, assessing Hurrican Andrew's toll on South Florida's critical coastal ecosystem. Biologist Steve Blair says the damage to the marine environment has been extensive.

BLAIR: We're looking at things from removal, physical removal of organisms from the bottom-soft corals, overturning of hard corals and the waves either have exposed new areas or buried other reef areas.

MUELLNER: Along the southern Dade County coast, 160 mile per hour gusts tore through Biscayne National Park. There, one of Florida's richest stands of white mangroves, whose web-like root systems provide a delicate spawning ground for fish and shrimp, was badly torn up. John Renfrow is director of Dade County DERM.

RENFROW: It looks as though a lawnmower has gone over all the trees and knocked off -- if you were from ten feet above, everything else is knocked down. And basically it's all one level plane, is what it looks like.

MUELLNER: And the damage is hardly confined to the shoreline. 20 miles to the west, in Everglades National Park, the storm's furious winds felled an ancient stand of rare mahogany trees and flattened hardwood Everglades "tree islands." Thousands of wading birds appear to have been wiped out, although some endangered species, like the Florida panther, fared well. Hurricanes have been a part of the natural cycle here throughout the millenia -- but in this era, man-made problems may hinder the system's inherent ability to heal itself. Again, Steve Blair.

BLAIR: We have to remember we're also looking at these impacts on top of what man's impacts have been, which has in many cases limited the recoverability of these habitats to what has normally been natural impact.

MUELLNER: The populations of birds, trees and other native species hit hard by the storm have already been seriously stressed by human encroachment. Meanwhile, invasive exotic plant species like the melalueca, which was introduced by humans early in the century, may prosper further in the wake of the storm, taking the place of storm-damaged rare Everglades plant life. Then there's the issue of fire. In addition to felling thousands of trees, Andrew's fierce winds further dried up wetlands already unnaturally parched due to decades of water diversions.

PODGOR: We have put so much drainage in the territory and lowered the water tables so much that protective features of the ecosystem have been eliminated.

MUELLNER: Joseph Podgor is executive director of Friends of the Everglades.

PODGOR: So what might have been OK to have a hurricane come through and leave fuel for fires, would not be OK now, although it may have been OK a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, before we were here.

MUELLNER: While the long-term effects of the storm on the Everglades will take time to assess, the clean-up effort itself may further strain the ecosystem.

(Sound of landfill machinery)

At the South Dade County landfill, a huge heap of hurricane debris, 30 feet tall and a half-mile wide, is growing by the hour. It's full of trees, sofas, rugs, toys, and contorted metal. Bulldozers scoop the trash into five open incinerators.

(Sound of crackling fire)

Open burning is normally not used, but area landfills are already near capacity -- and environmental managers say it's a choice between this type of burning and the risk of uncontrolled fires. Still, environmentalists like Joseph Podgor are worried.

PODGOR: The same kind of trash that were burned before under more controlled conditions that we thought was the cause of contamination of the Everglades with mercury and other pollutants now is going in an uncontrolled fashion in open pits.

MUELLNER: There is further concern that ash and debris runoff from the fires will endanger the water supply. But local environmental officials say they're monitoring the incinerators, pulling out hazardous materials for proper disposal, and along with the EPA, they'll keep an eye on air quality.

The 30-year hiatus since South Florida's last major hurricane is a bit of an anomaly. Scientists say on the average, a major storm should hit every seven years. And with this storm's staggering toll on property, jobs and natural resources, the debate has heated up over what kinds of development are appropriate on the fragile Florida peninsula.

PODGOR: The hurricane has given us a 162-mile-an-hour slap in the face to wake us up.

MUELLNER: Again, Joseph Podgor of Friends of the Everglades.

PODGOR: We have now a thirty-mile-wide area that isn't really much good anymore. There's an awful lot of it that's being salvaged. The question comes up, should there be a housing development there again? Should that be a farm? What should the land use implications that this hurrican has laid at our feet be? There is no separation between the human social resource problem and the natural one.

MUELLNER: For Living on Earth, I'm Alexis Muellner in Miami.



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