An Unwanted Visitor Arrives. Hurricane Andrew is the literal and figurative watershed by which many South Floridians measure their personal history. The powerful storm also had a profound impact on the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Roaring in with winds at 145 mph, gusting to 175 mph (with micro-blasts upwards of 212 mph) this late August 1992 monster focused its destruction along a 30-mile wide swath through Cutler Ridge, Homestead and Florida City. The Garden was well within the storm’s path and suffered major damage. It had been more than 30 years since a hurricane of this intensity had struck Florida. Andrew left the garden in shambles, trees downed, trees lost, and an unusual silence caused by the lack of birdsong.  In the weeks and months following the hurricane, the sound of chainsaws dominated the once idyllic 83-acre garden.

About a month after Andrew bustled through South Florida, newspapers published stories about the condition of the garden, reporting that the hurricane destroyed 75 percent of the garden’s 5,000 to 6,000 species. In an effort to rescue what remained, botanists, arborists and students representing over 40 institutions in the U.S. and Europe lent a hand in the weeks following the hurricane. Scientists from prestigious botanical centers such as the New York Botanical Garden, the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia, the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in France, the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, near London, and others joined with community volunteers to restore the garden.  They helped retrieve palm parts and specimens of tropical hardwoods for future study. Buds, wood, and roots were inventoried.

The storm was responsible for the loss of 20 percent of the garden’s palm collection and about 75 percent of other plant materials.  More than 300 palms had to replanted, stood up or braced. Workers did their best to prevent disease from attacking the weakened trees. Three months later an inventory revealed that 41 species were totally lost. The fate of the cycads was a major concern because of their rarity in the world. Of the known nearly 200 species in the world, FTBG had 125 of them when the storm hit. Additionally, the built environment suffered. The rare plant house was lost and the irrigation system nearly destroyed by falling trees, their roots pulling up long lengths of piping.

Chuck Hubbuch, the Fairchild’s curator of palms at the time, stated that Andrew had taught them the many ways in which a palm can die. Palms were crushed by the weight of the branches and trunks of other fallen trees; some broke from their roots and blew away; terminal buds blew out of the crowns; and others were, in a sense, decapitated, the crowns completely broken off from the trunk.

In a letter dated November 1992, Mr. Hubbuch reports that over 400 volunteers “poured through our gates to assist in our cleanup and rescue operation.” Among the volunteers were six employees of Disney World who drove from Orlando to Coral Gables to help save the trees. Sims Crane Company from Orlando donated a crane and Operating Engineers of Local 673 donated an operator, setting up about 50 large trees. With all this assistance, the garden was able to re-open by early October 1992. Along with the outpouring of the community’s donations of labor came generous donations of funds from around the world. From this tragedy arose the community’s dedication to the volunteer corps that continues to be invaluable to the care and maintenance of the Fairchild to this day.

Mr. Hubbuch speaks of the garden’s return and reflects on the Andrew experience:

“Although the storm’s efforts were tragic, the recovery effort was an education to us all. While I do not wish to do this again, it has opened wonderful new planting spaces, pruned overgrown trees, and maybe most importantly, shook most of the complacency from the staff. I think we all look at the Garden from a new appreciation for the forces of nature.”

In a recent Miami Herald article, Fairchild Director, Dr. Carl Lewis spoke about the hurricane’s impact on the Fairchild and the community’s reaction to it.

“There have been a lot of milestones, but the one that stands out as a turning point was Hurricane Andrew. That was a point where the garden got a lot of support from the community here in South Florida and elsewhere. The scientific community made it clear how many friends of the garden there were out there. If we look at the diversity of plants in the collection, there has been a steady increase. This dipped after the hurricane and picked up again. If you look at the progress of the garden and contrast that with photos of the devastation, it’s amazing the resilience in the way the garden recovered. We had hundreds of volunteers that literally propped the trees back up,” said Dr. Lewis.

Memories of a storm that left physical scars on the landscape and the built environment, and emotional scars on the people of Southeast Florida, persist. However, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden has healed and continues to prosper with new building projects designed to educate, entertain and enlighten the 400,000 visitors and over 100,000 school children who come to the site each year.

Recent building projects include the Paul and Swanee Dimare Science Village. More than 25,000 square feet of land are devoted to the village that features laboratories, classrooms and an impressive 40-foot high butterfly and hummingbird conservatory.

Opening in 2014 is the Rose-McQuillan Arts Building.The 3,000 square foot multi-purpose building now under construction will provide a venue for art exhibitions and musical performances. The building will complement the “Art at Fairchild” exhibits of Chihuly glass and other charming works of art that can be found around the garden.

As the FTBG continues to celebrate its 75th anniversary, Director Dr. Carl Lewis remarks on the coming of the new arts building, “As we look to the future, we are anxiously awaiting the opening of the Adam R. Rose and Peter R. McQuillan Arts Center. It will be a unique community gathering place for the arts and education, and will be an important venue for telling Fairchild’s history.”

The Arts Center may be the perfect gift to a community who stood by the Fairchild, repairing the wrath of Hurricane Andrew and working together to build and maintain one of the world’s most essential botanical gardens.


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