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Irma dings ‘Ding’

By Staff | Sep 20, 2017

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge sustained minor damage from Hurricane Irma which touched down on the island Sept. 9. Refuge Supervisory Ranger Toni Westland said the removal of exotics after Hurricane Charley hit 13 years ago was their saving grace.

“If you continue to plant native, it’s going to protect you because they can withstand high winds, rain and storms,” Westland said. “Yes, the native trees snapped, seagrapes and gumbo-limbos, but it was nearly not as bad as Hurricane Charley.”

Refuge staff spent last week cleaning up fallen trees and debris. Westland said about 20 trees fell over on Wildlife Drive, blocking the road.

“We’re pushing (the trees) off to the side with heavy equipment, we’re chopping them up with this chainsaw crew and we’re mulching them. We’re putting the mulch right back into the estuary where it just becomes fish food. Nothing goes to waste,” Westland said.

As far as the trails, Westland said that Indigo Trail was already cleared. The Calusa Shell Mound Trail at the end of Wildlife Drive was still in rough shape late last week.

“Again, it’s downed trees and debris. With Charley, we had to replace the boardwalk, it was all ripped up. That did not happen this time,” Westland said.

Fortunately, the refuge didn’t have damage to any buildings. Westland was hoping to open soon.

Other organizations have also pitched in to help refuge staff: last Wednesday, four employees from St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge arrived at “Ding” to help clear debris. Two law enforcement officials from different states were even sent down to help the refuge staff.

“If anyone is missing, we have the GPS coordinates of where everyone is supposed to be, they would go and check on our employees,” Westland said.

Before the storm even hit, the refuge received two reassuring messages: one was from the Greg Sheehan, acting director of Florida Fish and Wildlife Service.

“He called Paul (Tritaik) in the middle of the storm and said ‘I’m thinking of you guys, and I know it’s going to be a hard time.’ It’s really awesome that our leadership reached out to Paul and left a message. It’s a testimony to the service as a family. I don’t know if people get it, but we really are. Everybody checks up on everybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Washington or if you’re on Sanibel or in a regional office. Everybody is reaching out,” Westland said.

The second message came as a complete surprise. Pat Griffin, a Tallahassee resident, left a voicemail telling the staff how much she loves the refuge.

“It was so sweet. I hit redial to get her number and I called her back. She couldn’t even believe I called her back first of all because it was Monday and we just got done with the hurricane. But I told her that she made our day. We played her message for any staff walking by,” Westland said.