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

That it will come back seems unquestionable, a happy outcome that accounts at least in part for Meeder's drollery in the face of disaster. He and Ross got to watch Nature rip Meeder's Homestead house to pieces around them (Ross came up from his home in the Keys to what by rights should have been the safety of the mainland). Now they've got a chance to watch that same Nature put something back together.

Among the most dramatic photographs of Hurricane Andrew's destructive power were those that depicted the remnants of South Dade's mobile homes A hundreds of them smashed to bits. On Elliott Key, the storm got an early start in its macabre attraction to these fragile abodes. Fourteen hours before Andrew came ashore, such a trailer had been home to coral-reef ecologist James W. Porter and three other researchers from the University of Georgia. Warned by rangers to prepare for evacuation, Porter was hurriedly packing materials into the relative safety of the visitors' center when a strange and possibly quite crazy thought came to him. "I believed that the visitors' center structure would survive, and I actually toyed with the idea of staying there to try and film the storm," Porter says by phone from his new base at the Key Largo Marine Research Laboratory. "One thing that weighed against my doing that actually was not logic or safety or anything else, but the fact that it appeared the storm would hit at night, so one probably couldn't see very much. And I wasn't into sounds that much, so since the sights were going be gone, I figured the best thing to do would be to leave."

Three weeks passed before Porter was able to get back to Elliott Key. When he and his team returned, they found the visitors' center still standing -- Porter had been right about that -- but virtually everything else was decimated. Their living quarters were simply gone, blown away. What trees remained had no leaves. After four summers on the jungle island, the sudden desolation was hard to take, and Porter expected no less a catastrophe offshore, in the forests of shallow-water corals whose health was his prime concern. He had written papers about the reefs of Jamaica's northern coast, where 50- to 90-percent coral mortality followed a brush with Hurricane Allen, which pounded corals to a depth of 60 feet. He had no doubt that Biscayne's shallow reefs, only four feet deep at low tide, would have crumbled under a direct hit from Andrew. He was in for quite a surprise.

"Based upon that experience, I had expected complete and total destruction of all of the coral reefs in Biscayne National Park," Porter recalls. "So when we came back three weeks after the storm, I was utterly stunned to look at the shallow-water formations such as at Ball Buoy Reef and discover that very, very little damage had been done to those reefs in the southern end of the park."

Any speculation on his part about how Biscayne's reefs survived Andrew, Porter says, has to start by acknowledging the absurdity of their survival in light of all the data available at the time. That said, he moves quickly to two mitigating factors, the first of which -- the storm's arrival at high tide -- seems of less importance than the second: the fact that these reefs, unlike those of Jamaica's Discovery Bay, had weathered and been shaped by other hurricanes in the last 50 years.

"So what we're seeing here I think is twofold, and the first [point] is that reefs that are subject to frequent hurricane-force winds and waves are fairly well-adapted to withstand those natural disturbances," Porter says, expounding on a subject he's clearly considered carefully since recovering from his shock. "And the second thing is that the individual oceanography of a reef will either predispose it to be damaged by hurricanes or will minimize the damage. So that even within a broad spectrum of destructive capability, some reefs will survive and some will not. Reefs toward the middle and northern end of the park, which received the northeast wall of Hurricane Andrew's winds, suffered much higher mortality and destruction."

Not all the southern reefs came through as smoothly as Ball Buoy, though. Senior research associate Peggy Fong and graduate student Diego Lirman of the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences have been studying the recovery of heavily damaged Elkhorn Reef, which lies about four and a half miles east of Old Rhodes Key. A single kind of coral dominates Elkhorn; appropriately, it is Acropora palmata, the elkhorn coral, a fragile, branching, shallow-water species that looks something like an underwater tree made of stone. Its apparent frailty is deceptive. Unable to stand up to the whiplash of hurricane waves and the more massive corals that they hurl like giant bowling balls into its midst (30 percent of A. palmata colonies on Elkhorn Reef were completely shattered, and more than 90 percent suffered broken branches and other wounds), the elkhorn takes a different approach.

"One of the studies we did looked at three different adaptations that the elkhorn coral has to hurricane damage," Fong says, her blue eyes sparkling as she warms to her subject. "It heals wounds very quickly, so if you have a broken-off spot, it grows back over it. We have some photos of that. The second thing it can do to regenerate after a hurricane is that live pieces of coral -- especially A. palmata -- will settle down onto the [the sea bottom]. It'll excrete carbonate and do what we call 'cement down.' And then it'll start growing upward."

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