One of the most powerful storms spawned in the warm Atlantic, Irma tore through the Bahama and Virgin Island chains, slashed the northern coasts of Puerto Rico and Cuba, and roared through the Florida Keys before storming up the Gulf Coast of Florida into the southern Appalachians. Just before our continuing education time with Jim Ladoux, we spent two days in the Keys and saw some of what Irma accomplished last September. Most of the evidence of Irma's presence has been plowed up into 10 to 20 foot high piles along the sides of the one highway that connects Florida's southern tip to the towns situated on a hundred-plus-mile string of islands scattered into the Gulf of Mexico. The piles included a most incongruous collection of things: shredded boats, big balls of roots of downed trees, chunks of concrete, plastic chairs, mattresses. These were all embedded in piles of light gray beach sand, waiting to be scooped up and added to the Monroe County landfill ... the only thing resembling a hill anywhere in the Keys. We saw where all the concrete and sand had been blasted up out of the windward waters bending three-inch steel fence posts like soda straws. A sign labeling Annie's Beach stood at the edge of the road, aquamarine shallows lapping at its foot. Irma blew a lot of land away.
Working together, red mangrove trees are stronger than the concrete and steel structures we construct on the shifting sands of the Keys. Red mangrove trees, like other tropical trees, sprout roots from their branches, sending them down through the air to breath the air, but also, ultimately to root themselves in the swamp or soil at the base of the tree. Called "prop roots" they do indeed prop these trees up and attach them to the ground, even when the trees are standing in salt water. They also help filter the salt out of the water the tree needs to drink.