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People of the Everglades survive, thrive post-Irma

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/11/2017 Chad Gillis
Carol and Dave Balmon, of Pinecrest, Florida off of Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve rode out Hurricane Irma in the kitchen and small camper behind them. Both have been through several hurricanes, but Carol is still rattled almost month later and says its the worst she has experienced. Dave is a lifelong Floridian and says “I’ve been there done that and I have the t-shirt to prove it.” © Andrew West/The News-Press Carol and Dave Balmon, of Pinecrest, Florida off of Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve rode out Hurricane Irma in the kitchen and small camper behind them. Both have been through several hurricanes, but Carol is still rattled almost month later and says its the worst she has experienced. Dave is a lifelong Floridian and says “I’ve been there done that and I have the t-shirt to prove it.”

PINECREST, Fla. — Carol Balman lights a Virginia Slims 120 cigarette, runs her feeble pink fingers through her short, blonde hair and sits back in an old white plastic lawn chair perched in the mud in her front yard.

“Now you see what it looks like in the Everglades after a big storm,” she says, holding back tears and choking on her words. “I just thank God that we’re still alive. That’s all we’ve got now. Everything's gone.”

Balman, 69, and her husband, Dave, 71, rode out Category 3 Hurricane Irma in a 20-foot tow-behind camper on a small chunk of land that’s about 2 feet above sea level.

Winds of 120 mph or more hit the area and caused a tree to fall on the trailer, and Carol thinks the tree pinned the trailer to the ground and saved their lives.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Carol says to a crew of National Park Service workers who are cleaning up tree debris along this remote stretch of Loop Road in Monroe County.

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She gets up to hug one worker. “I love you,” she says, holding back more tears.

It’s been a month since Irma made landfall on Sept. 10, but Carol is having a difficult time mentally and emotionally processing the storm and the damage it brought to this tiny old logging town.

Carol loves gardening and takes pride in keeping their landscape and massive trees (many of which were lost during Irma) in showroom shape. 

Some smaller buildings were lost, but it's the trees and plants that Carol misses most. 

The Balmans have lived here for about 50 years, and Carol said Irma hit their home harder than any storm in the past half-century.

This storm tested the Everglades and the people who live here, more so than any storm in recent history.

A few miles away, on the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida reservation, Betty Osceola walks carefully along a boardwalk she and her workers built in the wake of Irma.

The area is still flooded, a few feet above healthy levels, so the crew built new docks on top of their old docks so people can walk from the store near the highway to the swollen Everglades out back.

“I think indigenous people have a different feel for hurricanes,” Osceola says before boarding one of her airboats. “We look at it as another person. It just takes a different form. We have stories about hurricanes and we were told that when a hurricane comes it washes the land and it creates a new cycle.”

Osceola stayed in her traditional Miccosukee village in a building made of modern walls but with a thatched hut roof.

She said the roofs, made from sable palm fronds, allow the wind to rush through the ceiling rather than rip it off.

This is the same type of structure Osceola has used before, and her ancestors used for centuries to survive countless hurricanes and tropical storms. 

Irma ripped down signage and tore at parts of the roof at Osceola’s airboat operations along Tamiami Trail in the far west of Miami-Dade County.

The storm sunk six of her airboats, but that didn’t keep Osceola and her crew down.

“On the third day we were taking cash and doing airboat rides,” says Osceola, one of about 600 tribe members. “I thought we’d close for a week but the tourists decided we needed to open after three days. So we took them out.”

As the people of the Everglades have adapted their lives to the land, the Everglades itself evolved with hurricanes as part of a natural cycle.

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The ecosystem is flooded but looks about the same as it did before the storm. Some hardwood trees snapped and were uprooted, but, for the most part, the vast cypress and sawgrass prairies look just like they did the day before Irma made landfall — just wetter.

There are areas in the historic River of Grass where high, relatively dry land interrupts the sawgrass prairies and massive wetlands. 

Called tree islands, the ecologically unique features are where the Seminole and Miccosukee have lived, farmed and held ceremonies since at least the 1800s.

These lands are flooded and have been for much of the summer, since record June rains dumped more than a foot of precipitation across the area.

Hurricane Irma only added to the problems. These islands can be destroyed if they are under water for too long, Osceola explains. 

"It's going to take months for this to dry out, and that's if it stops raining," Osceola said about 10 minutes before it starts to rain, again. 

About 40 miles to the east, Jack Shealy assesses the damages at the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, a tourist attraction and campground near the Turner River in Big Cypress National Preserve. 

"We got flooded, but it's not the first time," Shealy says while walking through the main store, where two of the three drips from the ceiling are being collected in old buckets.

"I could tell the storm was going to be big because all the animals were acting strange. I saw turtles crossing to the north side of the highway (instead of the other direction) and fire ants were going up the trees. Normally, you only have black ants in the trees and the fire ants stay on the ground. And the bugs, the mosquitoes, they were biblical." 

Shealy fled the campground days before Irma made landfall in the Everglades City area, about 10 miles from the Skunk Ape Headquarters. 

His family has guided tours and rented to campers here for more than a century. 

"We've never run from a storm in 100 years, but I've never had a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old," Shealy says. "And we've never had help before and we're not (asking for it) now. We're moving on and not dwelling on it. There's no time for tears. It's time for everyone to get back to work, just like they did before the storm." 

Several camping trailers at the headquarters were destroyed in the storm, one lifted several feet in the air by the roots of a fallen tree. 

Shealy says he spent days clearing the camp roads of fallen trees so people could get to their campers and RVs. He did that with about a foot of water on the 35-acre property. 

"It's as bad as I've ever seen," Shealy says. 

As bad as the storm was, it's no match for the collective wisdom and skills of the people living in the historic Everglades. 

Some folks are clearly shaken by the major hurricane, but everyone The News-Press spoke with said they planned to stay firmly entrenched in their homes and campers.

Shealy reflected on lessons he's been taught by elders and others in the area and deferred to Osceola, saying her culture better understands things like hurricanes and what most outsiders consider natural disasters. 

“It washes away the illness and cleans the land,” Osceola said of hurricanes. “Everything feels clean (now). The air feels lighter.”

The Balmans are living in a fifth-wheel camper they borrowed from some friends. It sits near an old gas station with a sign out front sporting a toy rifle that reads: "We don't call 911." 

They spend their days under a white canopy tarp tied up for them by the National Park Service. The tarp ruffles in the stiff breeze and keeps them dry, mostly. 

"But we love it out here," Carol says while snuffing out her Virginia Slim. 

Follow Chad Gillis on Twitter: @ChadGillisNP




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