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Cape Florida park returns to roots after Hurricane Andrew

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Hurricane Andrew's 145 mph winds skirted across Cape Florida's tip, flattening every tree. A storm surge nearing 12 feet drowned the pristine beach and visitors were barred for an entire year.

In the 10 years since Andrew, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park has rebounded, with visitors returning in droves to enjoy the park's beach, fishing, and natural beauty.

A restoration project that began after the storm has transformed the park to ``the real Florida,'' witnessed by European settlers.

And the Cape Florida lighthouse has seen it all.


Cape Florida is a peninsula-shaped formation on the tip of Key Biscayne, a barrier island located just southeast of Miami's downtown. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park is a 415-acre enclave that includes a harbor, lush vegetation, 1¼ miles of beach and the lighthouse.

Bill Baggs history is recent, but Cape Florida's isn't. The park's land was privately owned until about 1950. The owners had removed fill material from Biscayne Bay and spread it around, making parts of the area look like a ``parking lot that was about to be paved,'' park biologist Elizabeth Golden said.

Baggs, a newspaper editor, had been pushing for the preservation of the area, finally convincing officials in the 1960s.

The cape was a navigation point for passing vessels, with explorer John Cabot first recording it in 1497. It was a stopping point for European settlers in the 1500s and 1600s and visited by people of the Bahamas.

The lighthouse was built in 1825. On July 23, 1836, the sentry was attacked by Seminole Indians. The lighthouse keeper and his assistant were trapped in the top of the tower after the stairs burned down.

John Thompson, the keeper, was exposed to ravenous mosquitoes and the blazing sun after the battle until he was rescued by a passing Navy vessel. His assistant died.

The tower was rebuilt in 1846. The light, extinguished in 1878, was relit a century later.

The lighthouse was the only thing left standing after Andrew. A $1.5 million restoration was completed in 1996, and the lighthouse remains South Florida's oldest standing structure.


Andrew's destruction in south Miami-Dade is well known. It was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with about $30 billion in losses, and thousands were left without homes.

Key Biscayne was one of the first U.S. land masses to feel Andrew's force. The northern eye wall -- containing the most violent storms and winds -- swept over the park. The Australian pines that once provided shade were pressed to the ground.

``I went a couple of weeks after the storm,'' said Teodoro Rodriguez, 59, a volunteer who has been working at the park since before Andrew and still helps Golden with the restoration.

``It was leveled. You could see the lighthouse from the entrance.''

Some, however, saw a chance to remove the invasive Australian pine and bring back some of old Florida.

``It allowed us to start the restoration of the natural communities that we would have never had the money for before,'' Golden said.

The restoration program began with $7 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state's forestry division. Help also has come from the American Littoral Society, which still provides some funds and volunteer help.

The $7 million ran out by 1997, but the restoration continues, mostly with volunteers on a shoestring budget.

The project began with the removal of the Australian pines and more than 120 species of exotic trees, such as day-blooming jasmine and Brazilian pepper. It involved planting vegetation that would mimic the original habitat -- sea grape, Jamaican dogwood, Biscayne prickly ash, even saw palmetto.

The vegetation provides insects for sea and migratory birds to eat and shelter from hawks and other predators -- something the Australian pines couldn't do.

That makes Bill Baggs a key stopover for birds as varied as ibis, terns and even peregrine falcon. The park's 165 species of birds makes it ideal for bird watchers.

Park managers also made two major changes. First, more than 200,000 red mangroves were planted in a lagoon area rescued from the fill dump, at a cost of $3 million. The lagoon's natural water flow allows fish, shellfish and other marine organisms to enter through three channels, take refuge and feed in the mangroves.

Another change was a maritime hammock area. A paved path allows bikers, roller-skaters or walkers to experience a typical Florida hammock, or forest area. A near-canopy is formed for an ideal location for a nature walk.

The path leads to No Name Harbor, where boaters can stay overnight or buy bait and supplies.

Eight platforms and a seawall allow fishermen to put lines in Biscayne Bay while overlooking the historic homes of Stiltsville, the community of homes built in the water.

Lighthouse tours provide a breathtaking view -- after a breathless climb of 114 steps on a metal winding staircase that eventually replaced the one the Seminoles destroyed. A replica house and kitchen used by the keeper are now small museums.

But the jewel of the park is its natural beach, which has been ranked in the top 10 of ``America's Best Beaches'' by Stephen P. Leatherman, the nation's foremost coastal expert and a professor at Florida International University in Miami.

A narrow strip of sand is bordered on one side by small dunes topped with native plants. On the other is transparent blue-green water that rarely has rip currents because of offshore sand banks and reefs.

The beach is never raked by heavy machinery when cleaned and is in its natural state. Turtle nests are blocked off with stakes and orange tape. Golden says 84 nests have been found this year.

Park manager Lee Niblock says up to 14,000 people can visit the park on a busy Sunday and the smallish park has reached and even surpassed pre-Andrew attendance levels.

Before Andrew, Niblock said, attendance had been dropping from its peak totals of about 800,000 in 1986 to 480,000 in 1991.

Today, attendance has risen to over 800,000 again, 883,000 in 2000 and 871,000 last year.

``People are returning to their heritage and ... returning to nature,'' Niblock said. ``We like to present our park as what the earliest European and settlers encountered when they first arrived in Florida.''

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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