Take a look outside. What do you see? For residents of the Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael, it was complete and utter devastation. Photos of leveled homes, smashed businesses, flooded streets and forests laid to waste made their way through news outlets, across social media, and in texts and emails to loved ones. But what was less obvious was how the destruction set the stage for a new landscape: a landscape defined by invasive species.
“I’ve realized when most people look at the natural world, they see a blur of green,” says Richard Hilsenbeck. “They have no idea what it is.”
As the former director of conservation projects for the Nature Conservancy, Hilsenbeck has spent a career developing a keen eye for deciphering what specifically is going on in that blur of green. He’s logged hours visiting locations across the state, surveying and monitoring Florida’s intricate ecosystems.
Hilsenbeck’s work with natural communities has taken him to sites of supreme beauty, and, as is the case after major storms, sites of supreme destruction. He’s been dispatched to assess many of the post-hurricane sites of Florida lore: Hurricane Donna. Hurricane Andrew. Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne, Matthew and Irma.
He’s seen mangrove forests destroyed, covered in silt. He’s beheld dune systems breached by tidal surge. He’s visited wrecked oak hammocks, inundated by saltwater, and trekked to pinelands whose trees were snapped in half, wind-blown and uprooted.
Hurricane impacts—and devastation—are inextricable from Florida’s landscapes. They are part of the natural cycle, and some native species have adapted to prepare for, survive and recover from these storms events. Animals like sea turtles, key deer and many bird varieties have developed coping mechanisms that help them respond to storm events and navigate the impacts.
Native vegetation has even harnessed the power of major storms to increase their range.
“Hurricanes have been extremely effective in spreading native tropical trees in South Florida,” says Hilsenbeck, noting that hurricanes have carried seeds and propagules from Cuba, the Bahamas and other Carribean islands to Florida shores.
But given climate models predicting more frequent and more powerful storms as the climate crisis worsens, there’s reason to expect our ecosystems will be battered harder and more often. And coupled with fragmentation and diminishment of native ecosystems from human development and pollution, the more difficult it is—and will become—for natural systems to bounce back.
There’s one more wrench to throw into the storm recovery machine: ecologists are increasingly concerned about the role hurricanes might play in spreading invasive species.
The state’s long, fraught history with non-native invasive species is an on-going—and seemingly ever-worsening—battle. Florida spends millions of dollars each year on managing its more than 500 invasive animal species and nearly 1,300 invasive plant species, and often those control methods don’t pan out. Large, exotic animals like Burmese pythons and tegu lizards often dominate the headlines, but each invasive wreaks its own particular havoc.
Non-native plants are the species that might be capitalizing on hurricanes the most, due to a basic element of forest ecology: When a tree dies, it loses its leaves and begins to decompose, creating a new gap in the canopy. This gaps provides more sunlight to plants and seeds on the forest floor, ushering in a new cycle of growth. Successional plants take advantage of increased light to grow and fill in the tree’s absence.
But a hurricane creates an immense and untimely light gap.
“When you have a light gap that extends over thousands of acres—I’m not sure that’s a positive thing for any of the species,” Hilsenbeck says.
Especially if non-native plants are in the mix. Hurricanes can essentially wipe the ecosystem slate clean, giving invasives a head start to establish and out-compete native vegetation.
Hilsenbeck says this is something we should be monitoring in the Panhandle post-Michael, considering the non-natives in Central and North Florida that might spread in the storm’s wake. Kudzu, a longtime bane in the southern U.S., amounts to nearly $500 million in losses in farm and timber production annually and could easily spread in the Panhandle. So, too, could Japanese climbing fern, posing a threat to the floodplain regions of the Apalachicola River and the Chipola River.
“[It’s] really horrible,” says Hilsenbeck of the fern. “It just drapes and smothers everything.”
He says we should also be attentive to the threat of the Chinese tallow tree, whose buds resemble popcorn. The tallow tree sets thousands of fruits, each containing three white seeds. Birds will eat and disperse the seeds, which are buoyant enough to float and disseminate in waterways.
“It’s a real bad invasive exotic tree, which gets established in wetland areas and the ecotone between wetlands and uplands. It’s just horrific.”
The concern over invasives isn’t limited to terrestrial species. In 2017, the U.S. Geological Survey developed a mapping tool to help chart where aquatic invasives might have spread in hurricane flooding. The USGS estimates more than 1,270 freshwater aquatic species have been reported beyond their native ranges, resulting in potentially dire consequences for native species.
Matt Neilson, a fishery biologist with USGS, says the goal of this mapping tool is “to look at these previous storms and look at the extent of flooding where waterway connections may have connected.”
These connection points, where storm surge and rainfall have pushed waterways together, are new channels in which non-native species can expand their range. Neilson says aquatic plants are good candidates for spreading this way, as are exotic apple snails—a species that is widespread in Florida and across the Gulf Coast.
“They basically have a little trap door they can shut on their shell for any particular reason,” says Neilson. “That can trap a little air bubble in there, one, so that it can breathe, but two, it provides a little buoyancy so then it can just float on flood waters.”
Neilson hopes these maps can help resource managers and policy makers track and plan for non-natives, which frequently thrive in disturbed habitat.
When invasives are allowed to reproduce, proliferate and crowd out native species, landscapes change quickly and dramatically. Overhauled ecosystems start to resemble agricultural fields characterized by only one or a few crops over vast expanses. And that comes with a price tag: biodiversity.
“Biodiversity is the keystone of a stable ecological system,” says Hilsenbeck. “If we don’t have that biodiversity and stable ecological systems that are resilient to disturbances, we will not have communities that can rebound, regrow, and repopulate and flourish.”
Invasives are one of the top five drivers of biodiversity loss across the globe. Monoculture ecosystems are much more prone to disease outbreak and more frequent and intense wildfires.
For those impacted by Hurricane Michael, recovery is still a long road ahead. Hilsenbeck says he is pleased with the senate’s recently passed $19.1 billion aid package for those impacted in the Panhandle.
“Most of that money will go into rebuilding structures,” he says. “[But] typically there isn’t that much money to try and recover natural communities or to try to combat invasives.”
Twenty-one percent of Panama City residents live below the poverty line. Many rely on federal housing subsidies to help with rent, but funding for affordable housing programs is limited. Hurricane Michael exacerbated the housing shortage. After the storm, displaced hurricane survivors with little resources were left navigating federal aid options, searching for scarce homes all while trying to find a sense of normalcy.
Timber has sustained many Florida families for generations, and is a linchpin of rural Florida culture. The Florida Panhandle is home to some of the state’s most robust timberlands, but after Hurricane Michael leveled millions of acres of trees, many producers and workers were left to pick up the pieces and wonder if they are ready for this year’s hurricane season.