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    Metal and trees landed along the main road of Fort Clinch State Park after Hurricane Irma, just the visible tip of the damage within the park. Photo by Pat Foster-Turley/For the News-Leader

How nature handled Irma

Fort Clinch State Park is one of my favorite places on Amelia Island. In the score of years I’ve lived here, I’ve gotten to know many of its natural features intimately. Bucko and I drive through the park nearly every day, a relaxing stretch of time for both of us. We have pet names for many of its features – an “Octopus Tree,” the “Twin Pines,” the “Walking Dune” and many more.

As soon as the road was open after Hurricane Irma, I was eager to look at the park once again and see the changes wrought by the storm. And changes there were. It looks like a tornado tore through the park, perpendicular to the main road, from the beach to the pogy plant on the riverside. Only a tip of this destruction is evident on the main road where the tornado appears to have crossed, but that is scary enough. Large trees were downed, including, alas, one of the Twin Pines, and a large chunk of metal landed in the park, perhaps from the roof of a house along North Fletcher Avenue. Much more of the damage has yet to be assessed.

Carl Watson, the sage of Willow Pond, managed to visit his favorite trails and reported that the trail to the left of the parking lot is still underwater and the trail to the right is blocked by large fallen trees at the entrance, too dangerous to try to get around. There’s no telling what lies beyond the trail entrance, but he figures that these trails will not be reopened anytime soon. If I shed a tear for the “twins,” I can’t imagine how many trees Carl knew well, and told thousands of visitors about, that are gone too.

Added to the loss of the fishing pier after last year’s Hurricane Matthew, the changes in the park are drastic due to these recent storms. Although nature will rebound in the park, the loss of mature old trees will be missed, and what about the animals in the park and elsewhere around the island? What has happened to them? For the most part, these creatures seem to have found their own safe refuges and weathered the storm. Carl gave me an eyewitness account of one animal evacuating during the storm. A large tree in his own yard was damaged by the hurricane. He watched it slowly fall over a two-hour period – luckily not on top of his house. About an hour into the falling process, he noticed a squirrel running down the trunk with something in its mouth, which turned out to be a baby squirrel. As he watched, the squirrel ran back up the tree and retrieved three more babies, one by one, to relocate them somewhere safer. Somehow that squirrel knew the tree was going to fall, and it sought shelter somewhere else in the woods.

Since the storm, I’ve seen deer and tortoises in the park. The deer most likely found some quiet spots to hunker down. They might even benefit from the new, green growth in areas left unshaded by the large trees that fell.

The tortoises had the easiest lot of all. They retreat to their deep burrows in the sandy soil far below the wind and rain of a hurricane, coming back out unscathed when the storm is over. Just a day after the hurricane, Bucko and I watched a tortoise crossing the main park road, nothing unusual about that.

There are still butterflies all around, and birds and bees. These smaller creatures also can find little sheltered niches to hide in while the weather rages around them. When they are out and about again their world still welcomes them.

I worried a bit about reports of snakes in people’s homes, but nothing came to light. When dry areas where snakes live get flooded, they often seek the shelter of high ground. Our own back woods flooded completely after Irma, and our front street as well. We were expecting lots of snake visitors to our yard afterward, but none showed up. I was a bit disappointed, I must admit, as I expected this to be another show of nature.

All in all, I think the wildlife in our area did much better than many of the humans affected by the hurricane. I send out my condolences to all of you still seeking to put your homes in order. And here’s hoping our hurricane season is over at last.

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