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 park was a natural resource rendered priceless by scarcity, by South Florida's relentless appetite for coastal real estate. And now it seemed Nature had chosen it as a zone of self-mutilation. Instead of blowing through the beachside condos and hotels farther north like an agent of ecological vengeance, Andrew had stomped ashore across one of the last surviving pockets of Old Florida. From a certain perspective -- if you were able to get by the thousands of lives and homes saved by the storm's southern landfall -- it almost didn't seem fair. Not fair to Elliott Key, so blasted by the storm that one researcher wept on returning; not fair to the elkhorn coral offshore, ripped branch from branch; not fair to the big mangroves, their three-foot-diameter trunks snapped like uncooked spaghetti, lying twisted in vast blowdowns on the west side of the bay.

Then again, Nature doesn't know from fair. Nature knows systems, checks and balances, feedback loops. And in these latitudes, Nature -- at least that part of Nature that builds and sustains coral reefs, tropical hammocks, and mangrove forests -- knows the hurricane intimately. The two have a long history together. So it should come as no surprise that the story of the meeting between Biscayne National Park and Hurricane Andrew doesn't end in devastation, that these two systems, one creative and one destructive, might interact in a manner more complicated than simple collision.

That interaction continues today. Wildly, chaotically, the park is recovering, at a pace that amazes those who remember the wreckage of two years ago. Once skeleton-bare, Elliott Key's upland hammocks now look like the resting-place of a giant green amoeba. An entire new forest of mangrove seedlings has shot up head-high between the rotting hulks of Andrew's victims. And offshore the elkhorn coral reefs have shown amazing resilience -- not only surviving the storm but actually thriving in its wake. For biologists and park visitors alike, Andrew's impact on Biscayne has ceased to be a disaster and has become an opportunity -- a chance to watch natural South Florida at work, renewing and rebuilding. Divided but not quite conquered by development, down but not quite out, its restorative power retains the ability to awe. Hurricanes, at least, it knows how to handle.

Nowhere is that more apparent than from the elevated deck of the Elliott Key visitors' center. Looking down at the verdancy of the resurgent trees, festooned with fast-growing vines and leaves springing straight out from limbless trunks, it's hard to imagine the battlefield desolation that park maintenance machinist Fred Kopf found when he returned to the island after the storm. Kopf had battened down the buildings on the Keys only hours before Andrew hit. Out at the Elliott center two years later to continue with hurricane repairs, he remembers that afternoon as pretty much like this one, a bright, calm summer day without the slightest hint of approaching danger. The only problems he and his boss, Mike Jester, ran into were on Adams Key, at the building called the Casino. Built by Carl Fisher in 1917 and once part of the Cocolobo Club, favorite fishing hideaway of Richard Nixon and Bebe Rebozo, the Casino housed artifacts recovered from shipwrecks on the Biscayne reef -- cannonballs, swords, and other piratical swag. Kopf and Jester had planned to remove the exhibits from their cases and bring them back to the mainland for safekeeping. But there was one hitch: They had the wrong keys for the cases. With the storm bearing down on them and buildings still to be boarded up, they left the cannonballs in the Casino.

Had they had any idea what would happen at Adams Key, Kopf says, they would have broken the cases to rescue the artifacts. But with blue skies overhead, who could have predicted the wind would smash down so hard early the next morning, perhaps reaching 175 miles per hour in a vertical "microburst"? Or that park employees would return to find flimsy generator and laundry sheds intact, but the Casino and a nearby ranger's residence spread all over the southern end of the key and washed into Caesar's Creek?

"What we did, we doubled up the plywood on the doors thinking of looting, not thinking of the building not being there," Kopf recalls. "Big deal. We didn't even have a building, let alone looting. All there was was all the sewer pipes, water pipes, and electric sticking out of the ground, and a lot of chimney, big pieces of chimney."

Removing a pen from his pocket, he sketches the outline of the Casino on a cardboard box. One wing of the structure housed a classroom for environmental education; the other held the exhibits. In between was a breezeway where Kopf used to sit and eat his lunch, imagining the place was his. Now only a bare white patch on the ground remains to show where the Casino stood. Disintegrated by wind, scattered by tides that flowed at least kneedeep across Adams Key, the last remnants of the Cocolobo Club had to be picked out of the defoliated mangroves.

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