In my very first days as GRN’s new coastal organizer for Florida and Alabama, I was greeted by the dramatic lead up to and, ultimately, tragedy of Hurricane Irma. The storm brings a crash course in post-storm environmental issues for me, and challenges us all on issues of environment, infrastructure, climate change, environmental justice, and resilience.
As of this writing, the direct human toll from Irma is 82 dead, with most occurring in a few hard-hit Caribbean islands. The Florida Keys took the brunt of the Florida impact, and estimates are that 25% of the houses there were destroyed, with another 65% suffering major damage.
Though I am located in the Florida panhandle, with the arrival of Irma we are looking to the impact areas in South Florida to make sure that waterways and communities are protected from environmental damages and that restoration and recovery efforts are effective and just. I’m investigating reports of sewage spills and other pollution issues, and monitoring State and Federal environmental agencies and how they are managing these issues.
So far, it appears that most of the larger and more problematic industrial sites–such as Florida’s large phosphate mining operations—were out of the path of the worst of Irma. And while rainfall was heavy in places, it was fortunately not in the epic proportions delivered to south Texas by Hurricane Harvey.
On the mainland of Florida the very worst of the storm sent its wind and waves toward the mostly unpopulated (by humans that is) Florida Everglades. But the once-mighty “river of grass” and its coastal mangroves are weakened by climate change, sea level rise, and lack of freshwater due to upstream drainage projects. Meanwhile, waterways like the Caloosahatchee River near Ft. Myers are degraded by years of nutrient pollution from agriculture and some urban areas pouring-in from the State’s re-plumbed interior.
All of that paints a picture of Florida’s waters, wetlands, and other natural systems that are now far less able to withstand assaults like hurricanes. Working with GRN, I hope to amplify the voices of residents and fight for wildlife and wild places who don’t have a voice to bolster support for smart decision making along the Gulf Coast of Florida and Alabama.
I’ll be identifying the pollution hot spots and other trouble areas along with the communities they impact, then working with local residents on actions to protect both people and waterways along this special stretch of the coast. These actions will keep our coastal ecosystems and communities healthy and strong by eliminating water pollution, transitioning to clean energy, and restoring and protecting wetlands and natural areas as anchors of resilience.
I’ll be pushing smarter and harder toward that end, using science, an informed and empowered citizenry, and GRN’s years of experience and goodwill to move us to a healthy and restored Gulf of Mexico. I look forward to meeting and learning from so many of you along the way.