Look how far we’ve come: Five years after Charley
BC on the islands once meant “Before Causeway.” Now, to many islanders, BC is known as “Before Charley.”
It has been five years since the storm churned its way through the mountains of Cuba, picked up energy in the Straits of Florida, tightened down its center and strengthened from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane in less than 24 hours.
Along the edges of the eye, tornados spun off and tore through parts of Sanibel and Captiva, shredding everything in their path to debris. Gusting winds whirling around the 5-mile-wide eye of the hurricane as it made landfall over North Captiva and Cayo Costa were estimated to be over 160 mph. Furniture, drywall, 2x4s, insulation, roof tiles and shingles were chewed up and spit out. Trees were downed and branches were broken. Leaves were macerated, leaving green and brown foam wherever the rain blew horizontally.
The barrier islands took the storm on their chins, living up to their reputation for standing up to the swirling clouds, heavy seas, and downpours. We all rebounded albeit some more slowly than others. The “Where were you?” “How did you do?” “Are you back to normal yet?” questions are still being asked.
Out in the back bay, stoic mangroves held their ground. White and black mangroves, whose branches had been pulled off in a battle against the winds, soon started sprouting new branches, resembling oversized chia pets. Some were fatally wounded, particularly the red mangroves.
Red mangroves whose branch tips had been broken could not regrow, and many simply died in place. However beneath the mighty canopy of old-growth red mangroves, lay tiny troopers just waiting for their chance in the sun. These tiny two-to-four feet high mangroves which had been shielded by the taller mature trees now had a chance to grow. Propagules that bobbed in the maze of tangled roots stood upright and took root in the nutrient rich, decaying mangroves.
On a beautiful golden summer morning before Hurricane Charley, a stalwart forest was illuminated. Eighteen months later, the struggle of the younger trees and sprouts was obvious. But just five years later there is a new generation of mangroves – not as tall and full as the old growth – but big enough to buffer the storm waves and hold the shore.
In Upper Pine Island Sound while traveling by boat through areas that lost more than 70 percent of their red mangroves, there is still evidence of the windy battle. Dead wood is slowly breaking down, still contributing vital food in lieu of dropping leaves. The taller trunks are beginning to topple. Roots of the once mighty giants still tell the story of the glory days.
White and black mangroves have rebounded. Their older trunks are stouter than their newer post-Charley branches, looking a bit disproportionate, but they still stand in their place nonetheless.
The same embattled look of mangroves was observed on Big Pine Key, about 30 miles east of Key West, where Hurricanes George and Irene beat on the back country mangroves in 1999. There were subsequent storms including Katrina, Wilma and Fay which brought storms surges are much as eight feet, creating more havoc. But on a recent visit, 10 years after George and Irene, the mangroves looked unexpectedly good.
A decade of winds and waves pushing through the dead and down branches and roots had actually knocked them into the water. The scraggly skyline mangrove fringe had lost its dead tree tops and become a vibrant, healthy green canopy crowning the troopers, and the troopers had now grown into their own forest. The old-growth relics were down. It was the new trees that were reaching for the sky.
Those same changes can be seen fringing Pine Island sound. It is obvious that a renewed and robust forest is on its way to becoming the guardian of our shorelines, maker of land, provider of food and shelter and in their unique own way – beauty. Give them another five years.
Happy five years AC – “After Charley,” that is.