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Hurricane Darwin

You may hate Charley and Frances and the destruction they wrought. But they were storms doing what nature intended, leaving us to learn lessons and adapt for the next time.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published September 12, 2004

As we mop up after Frances, as we mop up after Charley, we contemplate Ivan and worry about whatever terrible storm might spin off the African coast next. Is hurricane season a Darwinian trick intended to drive the weakest and least prepared among us to madness?

Studying the dreaded Weather Channel map, we mentally connect the imaginary line from the latest cyclone to our state, to our town, to our recently flooded neighborhood. We picture glass shattering, oak trees falling, shingles flying. We buy new batteries and curse our lot.

Summer is always our longest season, none longer than this one when the tropics have been so in need of a double dose of Ritalin. Nature, will you please give us a break?

During our longest season, I sometimes long for the days when we were less informed, when we had no space satellites watching Africa and no round-the-clock weather station to tell us to start covering our windows and pray the rosary.

That said, I am a Weather Channel junkie. By the end of September I often feel like I'm on a first-name basis with Dr. Steve (Lyons), the bald-headed storm-meister, and Jim (Cantore), the macho guy in a ballcap who is always hollering, eyes sparkling, from some doomed seacoast or another. "Steve," he shouts into the teeth of the tempest, "this can only get worse!"

I love those guys. During the longest season, I hate them too.

I hate hurricanes, but I know that's as silly as hating an alligator because it's a predator. Hurricanes are as natural as an alligator lurking in a pond overcrowded with wading birds. The gator is just hungry, of course. But it will make the heron gene pool a little stronger by eliminating the weak and the foolish.

So it is with a hurricane. Roaring across the land, it knocks down pines and oaks, magnolias and palms. Not all of them. The strongest will survive. It is the pines that have been weakened by bark-beetles and the oak trees with unhealthy root systems that go down like matchsticks.

For a single, infirm tree, a hurricane is a tragedy. But not for a healthy forest. A dead pine or oak on the ground becomes food for other insects, which nourish birds and lizards, which may or may not be eaten by a raccoon waiting in ambush. Hearing raccoons fighting over a succulent mockingbird, a bobcat creeps close enough for a raccoon snack. A hurricane provides the first brick in Mother Nature's deli. Oddly enough, it's all good.

Of course, a hurricane can deal a compromised ecosystem - think "Everglades" - an unpleasant blow.

Hurricane Andrew gave scientists a chance to study the aftereffects of a hurricane in the pummelled Glades in 1992. Storm winds scattered seeds from unwanted exotic plants throughout the park; a decade later, biologists fight what may be a losing battle to prevent them from taking over.

The storm, however, had little effect on wildlife beyond the immediate, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study. Although millions of fish died in the stirred up water, Florida Bay is now considered healthier than before Andrew. Land-dwelling animals had more to eat after Andrew removed so much tree canopy. With sunlight, all kinds of delicious native plants blossomed.

In the "almost happened" category, the Schaus swallowtail butterfly, found on this earth only on Key Largo and a few islands in Biscayne National Park, seemed a certain candidate for extinction after decades of development and pesticides. Weeks before Hurricane Andrew, a University of Florida scientist coincidentally collected butterfly eggs from the islands with the idea of hatching a few in his Gainesville lab. Virtually all of the butterflies were gone after Andrew. Lab-hatched butterflies jump-started a new population that survives to this day.

For the most part though, natural Florida knows how to take a hurricane's punch. Natural Florida, after all, evolved to survive the occasional tropical cyclone. It is we humans who crumble like a washed-up prizefighter with a glass chin.

The reason is hubris. We build where we probably shouldn't build, and we build inadequate structures. We build what turn out to be rickety homes on the ocean and along the bay, on the lake and at the river. We get away with it just often enough to develop a false sense of security. Then comes a Category 4 storm like the one that killed 3,000 people at Lake Okeechobee in 1928, or the Cat 5 1935 Hurricane that swept 400 people, and Henry Flagler's Miami-to-Key West railroad, into oblivion.

Sometimes I think we Floridians are dumb, though perhaps it is our human nature to deny, deny, deny the reality of living in a hurricane-prone land. We don't prepare; we don't think the horror can happen to us. Along comes a Charley, along comes Frances, doing their Darwinian thing.

They punch holes through substandard walls or steal roofs improperly attached. They flood low-lying dwellings. Mobile homes that should have been retired decades ago end up crumpled in the trees.

If we believe in Mr. Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest hypothesis, we can hope the next generation of houses and mobile homes will be a little stronger.

If we are lucky, the same will be true of us.

-- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 9, 2004, 13:42:08]


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