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Repairs, Assessments Continue On National Parks Walloped By Hurricane Irma


Hurricane Irma left heavy damage at the visitor center at Biscayne National Park/NPS

The bite of saws and whrrring of power equipment reverberated under sunny skies Friday across Everglades National Park and other units of the park system damaged by Hurricane Irma as National Park Service crews worked to evaluate the extent of damage while also getting to work at repairs.

While heavy equipment was used to clear roads, special teams of tree pruners who climb trees to cut away damaged limbs were en route to the region.

Overhead, aircraft crisscrossed the region, surveying damage as well as searching Florida Bay for any boats that might have been stranded by the Category 5 storm that devastated Virgin Islands National Park before hitting the mainland last weekend. To help Park Service employees who were impacted by the hurricane, a fund was set up by Eastern National, a cooperating agency that long has worked with the National Park Service.

Surveys of the parkscape on Friday showed that Biscayne National Park's headquarters was significantly damaged, a moat wall around Civil War-era Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park had been breached, there was extensive damage to docks at various parks, and power outages were common.

Assessement crews were to arrive Friday at Virgin Islands National Park and begin their work Saturday.

Specially trained "AIR" tree crews also were being called to the region to prune damaged trees, said Park Service spokesman Mike Litterest during a phone call Friday evening

"They're sawyers skilled in rope work, essentially. They can rappel down the tree and actually work from the top of the trees on ropes," he said. "These guys will save the tree with strategic pruning.”

AIR stands for “Arborist Incident Response" and the teams are composed of Park Service arborists who play critical roles in reopening national parks after hurricanes, ice storms, floods and other disasters, Mr. Litterest added.

"As compared to a typical sawyer team that might respond to an emergency, AIR teams provide specialized resource assessment and stabilization techniques that meet professional arboriculture and resource management standards in accordance with the International Society of Arboriculture and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Proprieties," he said.

Heavy equipment helped clean up the debris left at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades National Park/NPS, Brent Everitt

Heavy equipment, meanwhile, was summoned to open roads so crews could get in to begin repairs.

“To get the roads open, to get the people in in some areas, they have to use the heavy equipment to push the vegetation off the roads," said Katie Lawhon, who was brought in from Gettysburg National Military Park to help with communications. “They’re actually handling big trees with heavy equipment.”

Across the Florida parks Hurricane Irma in her wake left heavy erosion, roofs peeled back, trees downed, docks destroyed, and boats tossed about. One thing the storm could not claim, though, was the high water mark at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, where Hurricane Matthew, another Category 5 storm, deposited more water in October 2016 in buildings.

Hurricane Irma's high water mark at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in Florida didn't quite meet that of Hurricane Matthew last October/NPS

In an email report, the agency provided the following overview:

Caribbean National Parks 

Christiansted National Historic Site

  • The park has re-opened to the public. The park sustained minimal damage from Hurricane Irma, mainly in the form of downed vegetation, some shutter and sign damage, shoreline erosion, and storm-washed seaweed and debris. Parking lot hours remain 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with a two hour limit.

Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve

  • The park has re-opened to the public. The park sustained minimal damage from Hurricane Irma, mainly in the form of downed vegetation, some shutter and sign damage, shoreline erosion, and storm-washed seaweed and debris. The Visitor Contact Station will be open to visitors Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument - CLOSED

  • Initial assessments will be completed when personnel arrive.

Virgin Islands National Park - CLOSED 

  • Utilities are down and there are problems with generators. Rainy weather is impacting recovery operations. The road to the campground washed out.
  • Staff are working with FEMA.
  • Park housing has suffered some damage.

Buck Island Reef National Monument

  • Island-wide assessments will begin soon to review damage to park facilities, natural and cultural resources. Commercial tour operations have resumed.

South Florida National Parks 

Big Cypress National Preserve - CLOSED

  • Assessments are ongoing.  
  • There are continued utility outages. 
  • A “boil water” advisory is in effect. 
  • Fuel shortages are affecting recovery efforts.
  • Additional law enforcement and security is in place.

Biscayne National Park - CLOSED

  • The main park road has been cleared.
  • An aerial assessment found significant damage to park facilities, including headquarters. 
  • A few Stiltsville structures have sustained minor damaged.
  • Docks have been severely damaged. Working to get docks in shape to meet visitor needs.
  • Numerous trees are down. 
  • An assessment by boat is underway at Boca Chita, Elliott and Adams keys. 
  • The park remains closed to visitor access, though water transit is permitted.

De Soto National Memorial - CLOSED

  • No power, internet or phone
  • No damage to park buildings has been identified.
  • Trails and fences have been damaged. 
  • County is going to help clear trails.

Dry Tortugas National Park - CLOSED

  • Staff returned to the park today to begin assessments and to meet the National Park Service supply and work boat, Fort Jefferson, which returned from Belize where it sheltered from the storm.  
  • Initial findings are that a significant breach of moat wall, but the dock is undamaged.
  • Radio communications are out due to problems with the radio mast.

Everglades National Park - CLOSED

  • Heavy equipment arrived at the Gulf Coast area this morning to continue clean-up efforts.  
  • Damage assessment efforts continue in the Shark Valley Area, where the Visitor Center appears to have sustained only minor damage.   
  • The Pine Island saw crew is clearing downed trees near the park entrance, and creating access the Missile Site and Royal Palm.  
  • Assessments are underway for museum/curatorial areas of the Dan Beard Center.  
  • Utilities have been partially restored to park headquarters. 
  • One lane has been cleared from the main entrance to Flamingo and efforts will continue today to widen the road for heavy equipment.  
  • The water/wastewater treatment plant in Flamingo is not operating.
  • Air Operations will assess Florida Bay potential stranded vessels.
  • Additional law enforcement and security staff are in place.

Atlantic Coast National Parks 

Canaveral National Seashore (Fla.)

  • The park is partially open and power has been restored.
  • Cleanup up and debris removal is underway.

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (Fla.) - CLOSED

  • Debris clean up continues. 
  • Restrooms are not functioning.

Cumberland Island National Seashore (Ga.) - CLOSED

  • Power is still out in downtown area where park facilities are located and on the island. 
  • Initial inspections indicate the docks at St. Marys waterfront have sustained significant damage. 
  • On the mainland waterfront, there are abandoned boats and debris.
  • Areas to the north end of Sea Camp have not yet been assessed.

Fort Frederica National Monument (Ga.) - CLOSED

  • An assessment team is on site.
  • A saw team will be working at the site on Saturday.

Fort Matanzas National Monument (Fla.) - CLOSED

  • Assessments found no damage to the Fort Matanzas structure on Rattlesnake Island. 
  • There is extensive damage to the dock. 
  • The vessels, San Pelayo and Trinite, were both damaged.  
  • Staff is cleaning up the grounds today. 

Fort Pulaski National Monument (Ga.) - CLOSED

  • The park received near-record level flooding. 
  • There is limited access to the fort. Both wooden drawbridges washed away. 
  • The roof (veranda) on the fort has been blown off and some of the boards underneath have been displaced. There are also concerns about a support column that may have shifted. 
  • Treating and testing of well water is ongoing.
  • Staff are assessing the lighthouse.

Fort Sumter National Monument (S.C.)

  • The park experienced near record level flooding but the water is receding.
  • Fort Sumter is closed until further notice, but Fort Moultrie and Liberty Square facilities are open.
  • The cannon on site need stabilization.

Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve (Fla.

  • The Fort and dock at Fort Caroline both have extensive damage.
  • Kingsley Plantation has multiple down trees and power outages.

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