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Wildlife refuges and parks hit by Hurricane Ian

Hurricane Ian
Trees at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge are mostly barren after Hurricane Ian hit. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

One of Florida’s most popular birding destinations faces an “immense” cleanup after Hurricane Ian. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge sits on Sanibel Island, which took a direct hit from the hurricane.

The refuge says on its Facebook page that state and federal agencies are in the midst of “immense rescue and cleanup efforts on Sanibel Island. It is hard to believe the level of devastation that we’re seeing out here.”

Photos from the refuge show downed powerlines, a boat tossed onto a dock, and barren trees. The refuge is closed because the storm washed away part of the causeway that connects Sanibel to the mainland. This Washington Post story makes it clear that rebuilding the causeway will be an enormous job and that the lack of basic services on the island have made it mostly uninhabitable.

The “Ding” Darling refuge office, visitor center, permanent quarters, and other buildings suffered extensive damage. The Fish and Wildlife Service is starting a formal damage assessment on Tuesday.

An FWS spokesperson says the agency’s “priority is still helping the community and first responders as well as security of refuge facilities. It will take significant time to determine habitat damages.” There is no estimate as to when the refuge will reopen.

Hurricanes Fiona and Ian also damaged other national wildlife refuges in the Caribbean, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Damage assessments at those sites are not complete.

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Chuck Larsen, part owner and photographer for the Santiva Chronicle, told the Post: “At the moment, it looks like nothing you would remember if you had ever visited Sanibel. It’s devastated.” View Larsen’s photos here.

Reporter Eileen Kelley of public-radio station WGCU told NPR on Friday: “I don’t know if there’s even a bird that’s going to be alive here. I’ve been talking to people, and they’re saying that they’re gone, that there’s — you don’t even hear a bird chirping anymore.” The refuge has not given an update on the status of the local birdlife.

Kelley also lamented the devastation in nearby Fort Myers Beach and noted that water in the area is black because it’s polluted with gasoline and oil from boats that “are just stacked up on top of each other, almost like throw dice on a table. They’re on land. They’re upside down.”

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The staff of a wildlife rehabilitation nonprofit on Sanibel, CROW-Clinic for the Rehabilitation for Wildlife Inc., had evacuated the island before Ian hit. On Sunday, CROW said aerial images showed that its buildings remain standing, but staff members have not been able to return to assess damages. They are requesting donations as they make alternate plans for wildlife care.

Several other parks and refuges, including many great birdwatching sites, sustained damage that required temporary or partial closures. Here’s what we know so far. We may update this story as things change.

The hurricane hit Dry Tortugas National Park, located on islands west of the Florida Keys, on the night of September 27. The park partially reopened to the public on Sunday, October 2. Sea plane tours have resumed. However, the docks on Loggerhead and Garden Keys are damaged, so the ferry and private vessels will not be able to access the docks until significant repairs are made.

A park ranger drives through a waterlogged road to assess flooding near Flamingo in Everglades National Park. NPS Photo

Everglades National Park closed before the storm hit, but it’s now mostly reopened. These Everglades areas remain closed:

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  • Gulf Coast Visitor Center and Everglades City entrance
  • Flamingo campground
  • Long Pine Key campground (closed seasonally)
  • Wilderness camping

The National Park Service gave this advice, which seems applicable to visitors not only to national parks but other properties as well: “Visitors should exercise caution because of the potential for unidentified hazards on land and in park waters.”

Big Cypress National Preserve remains closed to the public at this time while damage assessments are underway. Biscayne National Park reopened to the public on September 30 and remains open.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, in the hard-hit Naples area, reported on social media that its boardwalk and nature center “did not suffer catastrophic damage.” The facility was closed while staff focused on cleanup, and on Monday, October 3, the sanctuary announced that it will reopen on Saturday, October 8. Reservations must be made online.

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More than 40 Florida state parks were affected by the storm. Check the websites for individual parks for the latest updates.

For example, three areas within Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, the state’s largest state park, are closed: Big Cypress Bend Board, East River, and Janes Scenic Drive. The Jones Grade lakes area is open.

Other closed parks include Myakka River State Park and Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park.

Story updated Tuesday, October 4, at 5:45 Eastern time to reflect more details from the Darling refuge and FWS. 

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If you have updates on refuges or park closures or impacts to bird species from Hurricane Ian, please let us know at [email protected].

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