HOMESTEAD, Fla. — In the Everglades, snails are reportedly mating with unusual fervor, new leaves are sprouting from ravaged gumbo limbo trees, the hearty alligator thrives as always and all 23 radio-collared endangered Florida panthers have been accounted for.
Yet more than six weeks after it was raked by some of the most powerful winds to strike the United States this century, no one knows for sure what lasting effect Hurricane Andrew has had on the national park that even before the storm was deemed the most critically ill of all federal preserves.
"The storm hasn't killed Everglades National Park," said Richard G. Ring, superintendent of the 1.5-million-acre park that occupies most of the Florida peninsula's southern tip. "But it has added another level of stress."
The cost of cleaning up, rebuilding and rewiring the park for electricity--with underground cables this time--is estimated at more than $50 million.
Under siege from pollution, development, exotic plants and fluctuating water levels, the Everglades is about to undergo an experimental eight-year, multimillion-dollar replumbing job designed to save it. However, work on the first phase--construction of two dams northeast of the Shark River Slough--has been delayed at least three months because of the storm, according to Lewis Hornung, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Not only have more than 600 Corps employees been sent to South Florida to help with debris removal and rebuilding, but "lots of key players have been personally devastated by the storm," said Hornung. "They have to get their lives back in order first."
Meanwhile, the park is closed to everyone except boaters, who can enter through Everglades City at the southernmost boundary, and is not expected to reopen until December. Even then, added Ring, "it will be several years before we are back to normal."
Some of the hurricane's effects are readily apparent. The main visitor center just five miles west of Homestead is missing much of its roof. Nature centers, offices and toll booths have been trashed by the wind, and wooden boardwalks, which once allowed tourists to hike out over the watery saw grass prairies, have been twisted and splintered. The park remains without electricity; regular telephone service has only recently been restored.
The eye of the powerful Aug. 24 storm passed right over the Everglades, and winds, which may have exceeded 175 m.p.h., snapped 100-foot slash pines in half, uprooted towering palms and mahogany trees and stripped the leaves off everything above 15 feet.
Park botanist Robert F. Doren estimates that throughout the park, from 18% to 50% of the trees are broken off or dead. Hardwood hammocks--jungle-like groves of trees and shrubs clinging to islands of high ground in the saw grass --have been hit even harder. "In the hammocks, the majority of the trees are down," he said.
The hurricane also has uprooted the lives of park employees. More than 100 of 250 people employed by Everglades National Park, adjacent Biscayne National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve were left homeless by the storm, and a federal crisis intervention team has set up a program offering mental health counseling, which could run for years. "The hurricane passed through in hours," said park spokeswoman Patricia Tolle. "But it's going to take a long time to clean up the emotional damage."
The homes of both Ring and Assistant Superintendent J. Durand Jones were destroyed. They and dozens of other park employees have been living with friends or staying in Flamingo Lodge, a collection of 100 cottages and motel rooms at the park's southern boundary that is usually rented to tourists.
Damage to the delicate ecology of the Everglades, the "River of Grass" that is the source of fresh water for about 4 million South Florida residents, is tougher to gauge. Teams of scientists from all over the United States have arrived to assess harm to flora and fauna.
Preliminary evidence suggests that most animals did just fine in Hurricane Andrew, although some heron rookeries were ravaged and alligator nests and eggs destroyed.
In areas of the park, which at this time of year are normally awash with tourists--many of them European, only the songs of birds and the splash of an alligator as it makes a meal of a fish can be heard.
American coots, anhingas, herons and roseate spoonbills are plentiful. Palm warblers flit through the tattered branches of the hardwoods. Turtles bask in the sun atop fallen trees, and overhead turkey vultures and ospreys ride the updrafts with instinctual ease.
"Storms are a natural occurrence. These things exist in the natural world, and animals can handle them," said Doren. What is less certain is the capability of the park--"disturbed and vulnerable," in Doren's words--to handle renewed attacks from exotic plant species that in recent years have posed one of the major threats to the wetlands.