For several weeks I’d been planning to talk about information I had from the Alliance For Community Trees on how cities have started tracking the amount of money their trees earn for them each year. It’s a fact that leafy canopies lower summer air conditioning bills and more shade also means many fewer acres of grass to maintain. Additionally, trees, be they pines or palms, olives or oaks, contribute to better health, lowering asthma rates and birth defect numbers by removing air pollutants.

And then Hurricane Irma tore through Florida and rather than writing about anything, I was headed south with my partner to see if there was anything worth saving of his funky trailer in the old fishing camp where we spend part of the winter. The devastation there, in Everglades City, just north of the Florida Keys, was so complete that it took nearly a week just to get in touch with people who could take a look at the place. When they reported that the old warhorse of a trailer, which had withstood Hurricane Wilma 12 years ago, was intact, but two inches of water had flooded most of the structure, we knew we needed to see it for ourselves.

“Don’t come,” our neighbors warned, “it’s a war zone.” The bridge to the island community had been damaged so no one could drive in or out, there wasn’t a business left open in Everglades City, no power and no water. So of course we left immediately, loading our old camper on the truck, along with lots of water, food, tools, fuel and a generator.

As we drove south, messages came in that the bridge was passable and power and water restored. By the time we reached North Carolina, we were seeing hundreds of utility trucks in northward-bound caravans, their jobs done. It was a reassuring sight, as was the sight of business largely being carried on as usual in Naples, the closest large metropolitan area to Everglades City. So we were totally unprepared for the complete and utter chaos ahead. The road into Everglades City was lined with mountains of soaked debris dragged to the curb from every home on every street: mattresses and clothing, couches and children’s toys, everyone’s lives lying in ruins for all to see. Hundreds of ruined appliances were set in an empty lot for eventual pick-up. The traffic circle in the center of town had become a tent city where FEMA and the Red Cross tried to feed, clothe and give essential services to stunned householders whose households were uninhabitable.



We were the lucky ones. Our place was badly damaged as were 96 percent of the homes in the area, but the damage was confined to water-soaked floors, save for the neighbor’s beloved avocado tree, which had fallen and crushed our storage shed. We set up life in the camper, able to plug into the now-restored electricity and begin the work of sorting things out. Others in the small community were doubling up, sharing homes that were dry with those who were waiting

for FEMA to come by and survey their condemned homes. The 20 or so residents who were there shared meals and helped each other wherever possible. It was over 100 degrees every day, with the usual torrential showers of south Florida’s rainy season contributing to off-the-charts humidity levels. The Red Cross trucks cruised the streets, calling out over their loudspeakers that they had hot meals and bottled water, cleaning supplies, shovels and rakes, never in a hurry, always willing to talk or try to help.

Once we found that our porch was intact and all salvageable household goods could be stored there, we hired a crew that was experienced in demolition to come through and take out all the soaked carpet, underlayment, flooring and insulation from most of the structure. They took it away by the excavator-load, adding it to the windrows of debris that were fast growing along the waterfront of the park, the place where we all once watched sunsets and met to share tales of daily fishing and kayaking expeditions.

Finally, after spraying all the newly exposed trailer structure with a mix of vinegar and hydrogen peroxide to prevent the growth of mold, we set up some fans to help dry things out and began packing up to head north and figure out how we’d begin the restoration process. I was finally able to take a good look around and realized that during the week from hell some of the water-soaked and wind-stripped shrubs had begun sending out new shoots and blossoms. Hibiscus and crown of thorns sported red blooms, Mexican petunias were pumping out purple flowers.

And the trees? All over Florida the state’s iconic palms had been blown over but were pushed back in place and propped up while they re-rooted themselves. Proof of the palm species’ ability to survive in the tropics was evident all over our island community when coconuts were unearthed in every corner. The huge old strangler fig, pride of our park’s waterfront, was already sending out new leaves, as was my neighbor’s old twisted brugmansia, which hangs with fragrant white trumpets several times a year. Bananas and papayas were sending out new shoots. Long before manmade structures were repaired, the shade-giving trees had begun repairing themselves, survivors of and shelters from the storm.