The Language of Nature

Destruction. Upheaval. Change. Rebirth. In the two years since Hurricane Andrew, Biscayne National Park has had to learn an entirely new vocabulary

The smallest sounds stand out against the quiet of Saturday night on Elliott Key. Down in the nearly empty harbor, irregular tiny splashes mark the momentary surfacing of fish, reclaiming their territory from the boat hordes of afternoon. The day's floating keg party is over; their stereos silenced, the thong-bikini people have taken their sunburns home. At the north end of the waterfront a barely audible television provides the sole reminder of the day's aquatic cacophony, its blue glow illuminating the faces of a young couple A the only boaters staying for the night. Then the TV's tinny voice clicks off, and only the muted hum of a National Park Service generator remains to remind me that I'm not alone on this tropical island. The empty visitors' center looms above on concrete stilts like an abandoned colonial outpost. Its steel hurricane shutters, still lowered, creak eerily in the wind.

An unseasonably strong breeze has been blowing out of the east for almost a week now, keeping the mosquitoes and the no-see-ums off balance and allowing their prey an unusual nocturnal respite. Gusting over and through the hardwood hammock that separates this bayside harbor from the Atlantic, the breeze carries its own reminders. It's a thin echo of the killer wind that tore through those same trees two years ago this month A the wind that stripped leaves and limbs and brought the ocean crashing ashore over most of this island, that drove two-by-sixes through walls and cracked concrete house pilings, that crushed buildings like beer cans, that went on to take 43 lives and do more than $30 billion in damage on the mainland in South Florida and Louisiana. But it's an echo nonetheless, a little cue for the mental-flashback horror film.

Hurricane season has come again to Biscayne National Park. Two years ago the reefs and offshore islands of this mostly marine sanctuary -- the rock and jungle of Elliott, Adams, and Totten Keys, and the sandy anchorage at Boca Chita Key A met the leading edge of Hurricane Andrew, the most devastating storm in American history. Looking down at that moment from the safe vantage of a satellite, you would have seen the storm poised like a giant buzz saw, about to take a bite out of South Dade. Elliott Key would already be turning to sawdust. When the hurricane's eye came ashore a few hours later, the swirling cloud-wall marking its northern boundary passed a quarter mile to the north of the park's northern border; the southern edge of the eye crossed a quarter-mile south of the park's southern boundary. The center of the eye rolled directly over Elliott Key -- ground zero for a natural destructive force more powerful in its own way than a thermonuclear bomb.

After the storm passed, the people who know Biscayne National Park best -- the rangers and researchers who spend their days in the bug-filled hammocks and on or under the waters of the bay and ocean, those who keep an eye on this unique wilderness in the shadow of Miami -- had problems of their own to take care of. Some had been forced to flee homes and labs on the bay's islands; many had lived in Homestead, now a waterless, powerless swath of rubble. Those able to get their lives sufficiently together to think about the park could only expect the worst.

They had good reason to worry. In 1980 a glancing blow from Hurricane Allen had utterly wrecked the coral reefs of Jamaica's Discovery Bay. In 1988 Hurricane Gilbert had stripped whole forests on the Yucatan peninsula, burning with lightning-set fires much of what survived its winds. And in 1989, Hurricane Hugo had decimated the Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina, turning thousands of acres of trees into toothpicks. Hurricanes aren't gentle with things -- man-made or natural -- that try to stand up to them. For buildings, reefs, and trees alike the rule is simple: If something sticks up, the storm does its powerful best to knock it down.

In Biscayne National Park, there was plenty to get knocked down. Extending fourteen miles into the Atlantic from its eastern boundary on the South Dade mainland, the park encompassed the upper reaches of the 360-mile-long Florida Reef, a fragile ribbon of living coral perched in shallow water at the northernmost limits of their tropical range. Stunningly beautiful and rich in marine life, the Biscayne reefs harbored cultural and historical wealth as well: dozens of shipwreck sites, dating as far back as the Eighteenth Century. On the bay islands -- once reefs themselves 25,000 years ago, and more recently the haunt of Indians, pirates, and pineapple farmers -- dense hammocks of West Indian hardwoods thrived

in one of the United States's few genuinely tropical ecosystems. The islands' western coasts were narrowly fringed with mangroves, their roots swarming with baby fish. Beyond, on the bottom of the bay, a seagrass Serengeti stretched to the horizon. And along the mainland shore, north of the ominous towers of Turkey Point and south of the incongruous mega-midden of the South Dade Landfill, a second, larger mangrove forest rose, rooted in muck that had been supporting its trees for thousands of years.

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