The problems affecting the Everglades and its unique flora and fauna are not new. From the time Everglades National Park was created in 1947, the delicate balance of life in this fragile ecosystem has rested on the subtle cycles of water. But as development has pushed westward from Miami, wetlands have been drained and natural water cycles disrupted. The release of water to suit the needs of people in Miami has not always suited nesting birds and alligators.
Phosphorous from fertilizer and other nutrient runoffs from cattle ranches around Lake Okeechobee seep into the water as it flows south in a thin sheet to Florida Bay. Mercury contamination has been found in fish and mammals. Exotic trees such as melaleuca and casuarina (Australian pine) have spread exponentially, crowding out native species and destroying natural wildlife habitats.
In 1988, the U.S. Justice Department sued Florida, charging that the state's failure to enforce its own water pollution laws had caused harm to federal property. The suit was settled last year with a plan to restore the natural flow of water to the Everglades while creating a 32,000-acre filtering marsh to screen pollutants.
In April, the Corps of Engineers weighed in with its plan, which has been under study for eight years and is expected to cost $81 million, to build spillways and remove levees to restore a deeper, more natural flow of water through the Shark River Slough, the central channel within the river of grass.
Ultimately, experts say, the park will bounce back from the hurricane, as it has for millennia, and belatedly, the restoration project will get under way. "I'm an optimist. Hey, the Glades grew up under these conditions. Storms are a natural part of nature here," said Pete Rhoads, director of Everglades restoration for the South Florida Water Management District, which operates an 1,800-mile network of flood-control canals from Lake Okeechobee to Miami.
"But I am concerned that the Glades of today is not the same Glades we had 50 to 100 years ago. Its resiliency has been impaired."
Environmentalist Joe Podgor of Friends of the Everglades said the storm may have abetted the melaleuca tree, a fast-growing opportunist that has spread across about 400,000 acres in the wetlands. Although officials have been waging a vigorous campaign to keep the melaleuca outside park borders, the destruction of native species and the melaleuca's prodigious reproduction rate--one tree can generate 1,000 descendants in 18 months--have increased its threat, Podgor said.
Not only may Andrew's winds have widely dispersed the melaleuca's seeds, but the destruction of the high tree canopy permits more sunlight, which could further stimulate growth, Podgor added.
Outside the national park, which takes in only about half of the Everglades ecosystem, other naturalists are weighing the storm's effects on coastal mangrove barriers and underwater reefs. In a 20- to 25-mile swath of Biscayne Bay shoreline, up to 80% of the largest red and black mangrove trees have been "extensively damaged," according to Susan Markley, chief biologist for Dade County's Department of Environmental Resource Management.
"Those trees cannot regenerate large trunks and limbs," said Markley. "That ecosystem can only recover through the growth of younger plants or new seedings. It will be 10 to 20 years."
The effects of the tree loss on fish and crustaceans, which feed on the decomposing leaves that fall into the water, and birds such as ibises, herons and cormorants, which nest or roost in the high branches, is not known. Markley suspects wildlife populations may be displaced, if not diminished.
A further consequence of the mangrove damage is the loss of a buffer against future storms. With their spidery root systems, mangroves serve to protect the coastline from erosion that would normally result from a 17-foot storm surge such as the one Andrew kicked up. That ability, said Markley, is now impaired.
Offshore, meadows of sea grass show no evidence of damage, while reefs seem minimally scarred by scouring and wave action, Markley said.
On the national park's northern boundary, along the Tamiami Trail, about 350 Miccosukee Indians are also struggling to recover from the hurricane, a storm they have been expecting all their lives. "Our elders tell us about hurricanes from the time we are born," said Theresa Osceola, 31. "We see it as something sent to purify and cleanse our land."
Nonetheless, many chickees--thatched straw huts--were destroyed, and cement-block houses damaged. The tribe's huge bingo hall remains closed and tourists, the chief source of tribal income, are only beginning to return.
"We will recover slowly," said Jasper Nelson, assistant chairman of the Miccosukee tribe. "There is not that much talk about it. We just figure it happened. It's nature."
A Direct Hit