As the saying goes: “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Apparently, that applies to parks and volunteers, too.
Earlier this week, SCA and Southwest Airlines organized a service project at Barnacle Historic State Park in Miami as part of SCA’s Earth Month. Among other jobs, we were going to turn a mass of downed trees and limbs into mulch, but no sooner had we begun when both of our wood chippers abruptly became hors de combat. As Ranger Giovanni Penagos eyed the idle machines, 30 volunteers looked to him for direction.
It was not the first time Giovanni confronted an unforeseen situation.
Last September, Giovanni – a frequent SCA crew leader – arranged to take a short leave from Barnacle to join an SCA leader team building trails in Alaska. That’s when Hurricane Irma pounded the Caribbean and much of Florida. It was days before Giovanni could fly into a battered Miami and when he arrived, he found the park devastated.
Barnacle is the smallest of Florida’s 175 state parks – about nine acres, almost evenly divided between land and water on Biscayne Bay. It features two structures, most notably The Barnacle, the 19th century home of Coconut Grove pioneer Ralph Middleton Munroe, and a handful of replica boats. But Irma buried the grounds under 10 tons of seaweed, smashed a derelict shrimp boat into an historic boathouse, and dropped a more modern sailboat in the middle of the property.
Barnacle Park has a single narrow path that runs through dense hammock and relatively shallow waterfront, meaning bulldozers, cranes and other mechanized assistance were out of the question. Giovanni says the park’s staff of four had no choice but to “pitchfork all ten tons of seaweed into a couple of small mobile dumpsters.” Once they were filled, the bins were carefully moved to a disposal site, emptied, and the process started anew. “It took us months,” Giovanni says.
Staff used chainsaws to dissemble the intrusive vessels, a process that added some irony to the ordeal as the park’s 1891 namesake – the oldest house still standing in Miami-Dade County – was largely constructed of materials salvaged from area shipwrecks.
Giovanni says the one ray of hope throughout the clean-up saga was Barnacle’s volunteer base. “Our community members love this park,” he states. “We’d have collapsed without them.”
So when Giovanni reached out to SCA for extra assistance, we were determined to lend a hand. On Tuesday, a large bus pulled up to the park gate at 9:00 a.m. sharp and out poured 30 enthusiastic employees of our service partner, Southwest Airlines. They came from Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and other SWA locations, and after a rollicking series of self-introductions – punctuated by a succession of cartwheels by an acrobatic assistant manager – this team was ready for takeoff.
Some winnowed their way into thick mangroves to remove washed-up detritus. Others hauled deadwood while still others stacked a half-dozen damaged picnic tables on an open bed truck. Admiring the way they “turned the tables” on an otherwise arduous task, SCA volunteer leader Pablo Galesi observed “you guys must be awesome at Tetris!”
And wouldn’t you know that among the Southwest volunteers were a couple of mechanics who got the wood chippers going again.
“We hire for heart and we teach the talent,” stated Fort Lauderdale Station Manager Tennina McAnany, a 36-year Southwest veteran. “Everyone here is on their own time. Everybody here cares about the environment.”
“Giving back is important to Southwest, and it’s also important to our neighbors in South Florida,” adds Kirstin Taylor, an airline employment coordinator. “Service brings people together.”
For Giovanni and Barnacle State Park, the influx of volunteers was as inspiring as it was productive. “Southwest’s teamwork, camaraderie, and pulling together – it’s so wonderful and so encouraging,” he says. “It reminds me of why we do what we do, preserving these lands and resources and historic properties to hand them to future generations.”
The project also drew support from American Express, another long-time official SCA sponsor and generous Earth Month benefactor.
After completing their work and a quick tour of The Barnacle, the Southwest crew said their good-byes and Giovanni offered his heartfelt (what else given this particular team?) thanks before an urgent radio call pulled him away. A dozen new wooden tables had arrived and were ready for the newly mulched picnic area.
The signs of progress are all over Barnacle Historic State Park.