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Date of Issue: March 30, 2005

Sandscript

Juice is back on for most who were without

Kudos to FPL.

In just 14 days, Florida Power & Light restored electricity to most of its customers in the wake of Hurricane Charley Aug. 13. Statewide, at its peak, there were 874,000 people without power.

Of course, the power is back on only to homes that are still standing. There are currently estimates of 5,000 homes destroyed in Charlotte County alone, with another 12,000 houses damaged.

The effort to turn the juice back on took 6,000 workers. They had to replace 6,100 power poles and more than 600 miles of wire.

Total cost of restoring the power is expected to cost more than $100 million, paid from an established special disaster fund for just that purpose.

One of the more popular phrases that came out of the Charley nightmare was "lessons learned from Andrew," the Category 5 hurricane that swept through northern Homestead in 1992. Emergency management officials throughout the state have studied and studied what went right - and wrong - in the post-disaster cleanup effort of Andrew and made plans accordingly.

It would appear that it worked. Initial estimates called for power to be off for something like five weeks; FPL got electrical service restored in two.

Harbor cleanup woes
Restoration of Charlotte Harbor, Pine Island Sound and other Southwest Florida waterways won't be accomplished quite as quickly as power restoration.

The quantity of debris in the waters of Lee and Charlotte counties is estimated to cost about $24 million to clean up. If those "lessons from Andrew" are accurate, it could also take up to a decade.

It's not beer cans and plastic cups that are the problems. There are roofs from homes. Trees. Tree limbs. Boats - some of them big.

And its not just the navigational hazards that pose a threat. A lot of the debris is smothering seagrass beds or lodged deep in mangrove forests.

Boat removal costs may be borne by the boat owners, if those owners can be located and if they have any money or an interest in their watercraft. The construction debris removal will probably fall on the backs of local government.

The environmental damage will be in the purview of Mother Nature.

Florida environmental regulators step in
"It's our job to help nature whenever we can. But, hurricanes are a big reminder that Mother Nature is always in control."

That comment is from Tim Breault, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Of course, human impacts of Hurricane Charley took precedence over the critters, but now that the power is back and new temporary housing ordered and on its way, FWC is looking at the natural damage the hurricane wrought. As Breault put it, nature requires us to take notice of the environmental changes, because what happens in the natural world will have far-reaching consequences.

"Besides the obvious loss of animal life during a hurricane, animals' food and shelter may be destroyed, exotic and sometimes dangerous animals may be set loose, and non-native, invasive plants may be scattered to new locations," the FWC reports.

Initial findings include the following:

  • Bird populations weathered Hurricane Charley fairly well. Fortunately, nesting season was over for most shore-nesting birds in the hurricane's path, but altered beaches could affect next year's nesting.
  • Scrub jay, red-cockaded woodpecker and burrowing owl populations may have been especially sensitive. Deep Creek in Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area in Charlotte County took a hard hit. Massive defoliation may put scrub jays in danger from aerial predators, and when trees came down, some woodpeckers lost their homes. Scattered debris covers the holes of burrowing owls, damaging nests and trapping the birds either in or out of their homes.
  • Pelican and bald eagle nests may also have been destroyed.
  • A major fish kill occurred in Seminole County's Lake Jessup. A live transformer hitting the lake, and electrocuting thousands of fish, could have caused the fish deaths. However, oxygen depletion is surely a contributing factor. Lower layers of water in a lake often have lower levels of oxygen. Waters from the bottom of the lake mixing with surface layers, as the layers are stirred up by the hurricane, may have contributed to the mortality by causing fatally low levels of oxygen.
  • Manatees fared much better. No deaths or injuries were reported. At least one manatee might owe its life to the kindness of strangers. It was stranded in floodwaters on a street in Ft. Myers Beach. Good Samaritans placed the manatee on a piece of plywood and dragged it to a canal. When they released the manatee, it swam away, apparently unharmed in the incident.
  • All radio-tagged Florida panthers and whooping cranes appear to be OK.

There is still a lot of work to be done, though. Seagrass bed damage estimates have to be compiled. Sea turtle nesting data must be checked.

There's also a pesky but very real problem in Cape Coral - believe it or not, they've had an outbreak of monitor lizards roaming the area, and it is feared that the storm may have redistributed the big guys - they grow to 6 feet in length - and that could adversely impact any native species that lay eggs, a favorite food for the monitors.

A long-term problem will be the spread of invasive species that tend to take over the damaged natural habitat. Australian pines and Brazilian pepper trees are a particular threat. However, native species of trees and shrubs seem to weather the storms better than invasive plants, so the uprooted pines and peppers may be replaced by natives.

And now, the T-shirt
The Seminole Hard Rock Hurricane Relief Fund drive last week featured a T-shirt proclaiming, "I rocked the house with Charley" for a $10 donation.

The Tampa hotel and casino agreed to match the first $10,000 donated to its relief fund for those hit by the storm.

Randy White update
Randy Wayne White, novelist, journalist and former fishing guide, lives in Pineland on Pine Island, pretty much ground zero for Hurricane Charley. Below is his Aug. 20 update of the storm:

"Thanks very much for all of your kind notes and calls. I'm touched. After a week without power, water, phone, things are finally falling into place, and Pineland's recovery - all of Florida's recovery - is under way. I have been in far-flung places in emergency conditions, but never in the United States. The way our emergency operations, public and private, responded to Charley was beyond any expectations. What a great and giving nation this is. No place on earth compares.

"The National Guard set up a checkpoint outside my house, and the guys seem to love the hot sauce. Great to trade for MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). I'll soon be leaving repairs in the hands of my sons, and running away to hide so I can finish the next book, 'Dead of Night.' Maybe Anna Maria Island, maybe North Carolina or Colombia. For those of you who had plans to come to the Southwest Coast of Florida, don't change them. Sanibel is rallying. Hope to see you there soon!

"I didn't share with you one of the great losses I suffered due to Charley - though it is minor compared to that endured by some. I had five hardback copies of my first book, "Sanibel Flats," very rare first editions. Prior to the storm, my son Rogan and I packed them and other rare books in plastic bags, then put them in a chest-sized fireproof safe beneath the stairs, off my office.

"During the storm, before I got back to the house and before the tornadoes came, the attic window blew out, and rain soaked the place. It wasn't until the third or fourth day after Charley that I even thought of checking on the books. In a steel safe with walls three inches thick, they had to be OK. They weren't. Four of the five copies of "Flats" were soaked. The safe was fireproof, not waterproof."

Sandscript factoid
Randy eventually ended up in Sarasota, by the way, to finish his next book, due to be released next spring.

Oh, and first-edition copies of "Sanibel Flats" are going for about $1,500 each these days.

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