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September 2017

Dear Members and Friends,

In early September I excitedly wrote my first ‘Executive Director’ message for the Mangrove Monthly E-newsletter. In light of Hurricane Irma’s landfall in Southwest Florida, I feel compelled to share snippets of journal entries written during and immediately post landfall, and will continue to chronicle post recovery efforts. We all have a story - if you would like to share yours with the Friends of Rookery Bay, please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

September 10, 2017, 9:30 AM: Peering outside through a tiny window of my friend’s home where I have been staying since arriving in Naples, the wrath of Hurricane Irma begins to descend upon Naples. Our power is out - the silence is only pierced by fierce winds, driving rain and an eerie howling whistle at the front door. Inside the air is starting to become stagnant. I can’t imagine what it will feel like in the days ahead when we don’t have power or water. Six weeks ago I was ‘safe’ at home in Cleveland, and now the thought of a Category 5 hurricane directly hitting my new home is almost too difficult to fully comprehend.

September 10, 2017, 2:00 PM: As the winds pick up my thoughts wander...will my new colleagues and friends be safe? What will happen to all the wildlife? And what about the property managed by the Rookery Bay Research Reserve? Staff spent days securing our fleet of research & monitoring boats, installing hurricane shutters on the Environmental Learning Center (ELC), and prepping other facility buildings. However, staff weren’t able to retrieve important weather and water monitoring stations. To my chagrin, I also learned that a critical section of windows and doors at the ELC will remain exposed because the protective hurricane fabric for this section of the building is unusable. A breach could significantly damage many of our aquariums and exhibits, and limit our ability to engage with the public in the coming months.

September 10, 2017, 10:00 PM: Sitting by candlelight, I finally have a few minutes to reflect. Experiencing Irma’s 143 mph eyewall winds and driving rain was nerve wracking. However, chills went down my spine seeing the water lapping at the garage door while stepping outside during the calm eye. The potential 8-20’ of storm surge forthcoming based on weather reports would be disastrous. Yet, we executed our plans seamlessly, first stacking mattresses on top of the kitchen table, and then getting emergency packs and life jackets ready for us, three dogs and two tortoises in the event of a vertical evacuation to the roof. As the second half of the storm passed through we held our breaths for storm surge - fear of the unknown was ever present. Thankfully, water never seeped into the house! Exhausted, we contacted family to let them know everyone was okay, and cautiously set alarm clocks for 1am to monitor the pending high tide - I imagine a restless sleep awaits. However, I have never felt so grateful to be alive, and am hopeful others across Florida are safe.

September 11, 2017, 9:00 PM: Walking up and down submerged streets, we had our first real chance to see Irma’s impact on the neighborhood this morning. Trees were uprooted and resting on roof tops, toppled across streets, and leaning precariously in the wind’s prevailing direction. Strangers only days ago, we began talking to neighbors and sharing stories about our respective experiences. One neighbor tried to get his chainsaw working so we could remove fallen trees while another handed us a bag of avocados that had fallen from their tree. In the midst of Irma’s aftermath, I think back to this September 11th morning 16 years ago. In the face of tragedy, human nature re-aligns to bring people of all backgrounds together and rise above the adversity. I cannot help but wonder how much stronger a community and nation we would be if more people worked hand in hand each day, united rather than divided.

September 12, 2017, 3:00 PM: Reserve staff Keith Laakkonen, Greg Curry, Jeff Carter, and Pat O’Donnell, arrived at my friend’s house this morning. They came with chainsaws to help remove fallen trees that surrounded the house, and leaned precariously across the roof. I learned this was their first stop on the day, with plans to check in and assist many other staff in need of assistance. After a few hours of backbreaking work in stifling heat the yard was cleared. While thanking each of them for their generosity, Jeff responded matter of factly, “We are family, we help each other out, no thank you needed - that’s just what we do.”

September 12, 2017, 9:00 PM: Throughout the day I thought a great deal about that ‘family’ statement. I asked myself the question - what is Rookery Bay Research Reserve? Speaking facts, it is 110,000 acres of open water, mangroves, fresh to brackish water marshes and upland habitats. Speaking a greater truth, it is home to a very large extended family. We must plan and protect the Reserve so that future generations can continue to call this special place in Southwest Florida ‘home.’ Accomplishing this feat is not possible without dedicated staff working tirelessly each and every day, volunteers and members giving their time and much needed financial support, and the collective community living, working, and visiting in and around the Reserve who support their ‘home’ in countless ways.

For now, we must all turn our attention to recovery, helping those in need in our neighborhood and beyond. As we recover and rebuild, I encourage you to engage with Rookery Bay Research Reserve, whether to volunteer, renew your membership, donate or attend and learn from our many educational programs. YOUR support will help Reserve staff conduct vital hurricane-related research, and implement plans to lessen the impacts of future “Irmas” on our “home.”

athan headshot 180Warm Regards,
Athan Barkoukis
Executive Director, Friends of Rookery Bay

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