Florida, the land of the Seminole and the site of the oldest European settlement in the United States, is home to a wide variety of plant and animal life including threatened and endangered species like manatees, sea turtles, Key Deer, Florida Panthers and the Ghost Orchid. The state’s beaches and coral reefs are not only enjoyed by residents, but also attract millions of tourists. Coastal wetlands protect lives and property by reducing the impact of hurricanes and tropical storms. As recovery from Hurricane Irma continues, restoring, repairing and protecting Florida’s natural and cultural resources is critical for the people, economy, and future of the Sunshine State.
The Natural and Cultural Resources RSF, coordinated by the Department of the Interior Recovery, was activated to help Florida communities as they work to restore and protect environmental, cultural and historic resources. The RSF does not define the recovery priorities; communities impacted by Irma establish their own recovery goals. To help communities meet those goals, the RSF, which partners with 30 federal and state agencies, provides technical advice on recovery issues and assists in project management.
Hurricane Irma left a trail of vegetative and human-made debris in its wake. Cleaning up after a disaster is the first step on the road to recovery, but it’s not as simple as removing debris from one place and dumping it in another. Debris has to be sorted and handled with care to protect the public health and prevent the spread of disease. Debris storage areas can become breeding grounds for vermin and snakes. If vegetative debris such as trees or tree limbs is infected with laurel rust, citrus canker or other diseases, and transported improperly, disease can spread from one part of the state to another. If left uncollected, vegetative debris can become fuel for wildfires.The Natural and Cultural Resources RSF can offer guidance on debris management and may be able to recommend additional funding sources for debris removal from agricultural areas and waterways.
Wind and rain from Hurricane Irma damaged libraries, museums, botanical gardens and beaches. The RSF and FEMA’s Heritage Emergency Task Force reached out to the Florida Department of State to create a database of cultural institutions. Knowing where cultural institutions are located will allow for greater coordination and faster assessments after future disasters, which will result in faster assistance. Advice on applying for assistance from insurance, SBA, FEMA or philanthropic sources is available; staff can also provide information on disaster preparation and recovery strategies.
Hurricane Irma caused extensive beach erosion, especially in Monroe County, but also in Broward, Miami-Dade, and St Johns counties. In some areas, erosion leveled dune lines, leaving nesting areasfor endangered sea turtles exposed to street and business lights. Wetlands, estuaries, bays, and marshes, which Floridians use for recreation and plants, insects, fish, and animals call home were also impacted by the hurricane. The Natural and Cultural Resources RSF is working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA’s Public Assistance program and other federal, state and local agencies to assess and ultimately restore affected wetlands, beaches, estuaries, bays, and marshes and protect sea turtles.
Hurricane Irma’s wind and heavy rain triggered erosion which threatened river and stream banks, bridges and roads. Erosion can also adversely affect water quality and the natural environment. RSF staff, in collaboration with the IRC Mitigation Advisor, can assist communities to institute methods to increase the strength and structure of soil, like bio-engineered streambank stabilization. Loose soil is vulnerable to weather; stabilizing soil by planting vegetation that—once it takes root, holds soil in place—may reduce erosion during future storms and protect critical infrastructure. Bio-engineered stabilization uses a combination of biological, mechanical, and ecological concepts to control erosion.
Storm surge from Hurricane Irma inundated ground water and surface water in the Keys and coastal Collier County. The Jacksonville area experienced flooding from heavy rains over a sustained period. Storm-related septic tank failures contaminated ground water. Flooding, inundation, and loss of power at several wastewater treatment plants resulted in the release of untreated or partially treated wastewater in parts of the state. RSF subject matter experts can work with water management districts and state agencies to assess the long-term impact of salt water inundation from Irma and develop management plans that will restore watersheds. The Natural and Cultural Resources RSF, in conjunction with the Infrastructure RSF, can advise wastewater treatment plant owners on ways to strengthen facilities.
Imagine Florida without beaches or parks, libraries or public gardens, manatees or sea turtles. Florida’s natural and cultural resources create jobs, protect coastal communities and offer recreational opportunities that contribute directly to the health and well-being of the people who live in and visit the state.
High quality of life depends upon a healthy environment and access to cultural and recreational opportunities that enrich society. Hurricane Irma damaged parks and beaches, forced temporary closure of libraries and destroyed or disrupted the habitats of plants and animals. Hurricanes are a fact of life in Florida. As plans are made to restore natural and cultural resources impacted by Hurricane Irma, consideration must be given to increasing resilience so future gernerations can enjoy all the Sunshine State has to offer.