Aluminum shutters are one of the many preventative measures panhandle homeowners can include in their hurricane preparedness.
Photo: Carrie Stevenson
Hurricane Season in the Gulf and Atlantic begins June 1. For those of us who have lived in hurricane territory for some time, we all have our war stories of days without electricity and water, of being stuck in evacuation traffic, and of neighborhood camaraderie in the aftermath. Whether a newcomer or a native, it is always important to plan ahead and not be complacent about storm readiness. The last few summers have borne out the climate predictions of stronger storms, with many of our neighbors still struggling to dig out of the immense damage done by Category 5 Hurricane Michael last fall.
In this article, I will be paraphrasing a section from the well-done Homeowners Handbook to Prepare for Natural Hazards. A new version of this guide will be coming out soon, but I highly recommend the handbook (hard copies available at many Extension offices) for anyone living in Florida.
Tip #1: Gather your emergency supplies. Do this sooner than later—when a storm is in the Gulf with a trajectory towards your city is not the time to go shopping. Lines will be long, people will be stressed, and shelves will start to empty. Gather emergency supplies like water, canned goods, batteries, and flashlights (full list here) now, and restock monthly throughout the summer and fall.
Tip #2: Create a separate evacuation plan for natural events, such as hurricanes/tropical storms, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires. Northwest Florida is prone to all of these natural phenomena, and the plan required for each is different. For a tornado or tropical storm you will most likely shelter in place (unless your home is not secure in this situation), while fires, flooding, and strong hurricanes may require securing your home and leaving town.
Tip #3: Know you property and take appropriate action. Look at your location—if the land floods during a rain, consider flood insurance. If trees overhang your house, consider trimming or cutting branches that might damage your house in a storm. If the property has a high structural profile, it could be especially susceptible to wind damage in a hurricane.
Tip #4: Know your house and take appropriate action. When was your house built? Does it have connectors to tie the roof to the wall or the wall to the foundation? When will you need to reroof? Look at your blueprints—if you don’t have a copy, your homebuilder or local building department may have copies.
Tip #5: Strengthen your house. A house built after the early to mid-1990’s should have hurricane clips tying the roof to the wall and strong connectors from the wall to the foundation. If your house was built before then, you can still retrofit at a reasonable cost. Wind-rated garage doors, precut shutters, and replacing windows with impact-resistant glass can all protect your home. In the western Panhandle, 75% of retrofit costs can be covered through the Rebuild Northwest Florida wind mitigation program.
Tip #6: Utilize the State of Florida’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. This program can be used for a number of home improvements, including construction of a safe room for tornado shelter.
Tip #7: Insurance. Don’t gamble with your house. Obtain adequate wind, flood, and home insurance. Remember—if there is a hurricane in the Gulf, insurance companies will not issue windstorm policies.
Tip #8: Take advantage of potential discounts for your hurricane insurance premiums. Coverage may vary among insurance companies, so call you insurance agent to find out about discounts that may be available. Significant discounts may be provided for reducing the risk to your house with window protection, roof-to-wall tie downs, and wall-to-foundation tie downs.
Tip #9: Finance creatively. Consider efforts to strengthen your house as an important home improvement project. Most projects are not that expensive. For the most costly ones, a small home improvement loan and potential discounts from hurricane insurance premiums may make these projects within reach. It is a great investment to strengthen your house and provide more protection to your family.
Tip #10: Seek the assistance of a qualified, license architect, structural engineer, or contractor. There are some improvements that can be done yourself, but if you cannot do the work, seek qualified assistance through trusted references from friends and family and professional associations.
For more information, reach out to your county Emergency Management department or visit these IFAS Extension Hurricane Preparedness and Recovery resources.
There are five species of sea turtles that nest from May through August on Florida beaches, with hatching stretching out until October. The loggerhead, the green turtle, and the leatherback all nest regularly in the Panhandle, with the loggerhead being the most frequent visitor. Two other species, the hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley nest infrequently. All five species are listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Due to their threatened and endangered status, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/Fish and Wildlife Research Institute monitors sea turtle nesting activity on an annual basis.
A group checks out a recently hatched sea turtle nest on the dunes in south Walton county in Florida.
Annual total nest counts for loggerhead sea turtles on Florida’s index beaches fluctuate widely and scientists do not yet understand fully what drives these changes. From 2011 to 2018, an average of 106,625 sea turtle nests (all species combined) were recorded annually on these monitored beaches. In 2018, there was a slight decrease in nests with only 96,945 nests recorded statewide. This is not a true reflection of all of the sea turtle nests each year in Florida, as it doesn’t cover every beach, but it gives a good indication of nesting trends and distribution of species.
2015-2018 Florida Panhandle turtle nesting totals for all species.
If you want to see a sea turtle in the Florida Panhandle, please visit one of the state-permitted captive sea turtle facilities listed below, admission fees may be charged. Please call the number listed for more information.
- Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory
222 Clark Dr
Panacea, FL 32346
- Gulf World Marine Park
15412 Front Beach Rd
Panama City, FL 32413
- Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park
1010 Miracle Strip Parkway SE
Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548
850-243-9046 or 800-247-8575
- Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Center
8740 Gulf Blvd
Navarre, FL 32566
The Foundation for The Gator Nation. An Equal Opportunity Institution
The major goal of the Wakulla Springs Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) is to reduce nitrogen loads to Wakulla Springs. Septic systems are identified as the primary source of this nitrogen. Photo: A. Albertin
A Basin Management Action Plan, or BMAP, is a management plan developed for a waterbody (like a spring, river, lake, or estuary) that does not meet the water quality standards set by the state. One or more pollutants can impair a waterbody. In Florida, the most common pollutants are nutrients (particularly nitrate), pathogens (fecal coliform bacteria) and mercury.
The goal of the BMAP is to reduce the pollutant load to meet water quality standards set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). BMAPS are roadmaps with a list of projects and management action items to reach these standards. FDEP develops them with stakeholder input. Targets are set at 20 years, and progress towards those targets is assessed every five years.
It’s important to understand that a BMAP encompasses the entire land area that contributes water to a given waterbody. For example, the land area that contributes water to Jackson Blue Springs and Merritts Mill Pond (either from surface waters or groundwater flow) is 154 square miles, while the Wakulla Springs Basin covers an area of 1,325 square miles.
BMAPs in the Panhandle
There are 33 adopted BMAPS in the state, and 5 that are pending adoption. Here in the Panhandle, we have three adopted BMAPS. They are the Bayou Chico BMAP in Escambia County, the Wakulla Springs BMAP in Wakulla, Leon, Gadsden and small parts of Jefferson County, and the Jackson Blue/Merritts Mill Pond BMAP in Jackson County. All three are impaired for different reasons.
- Bayou Chico discharges into Pensacola Bay and is polluted by fecal coliform bacteria. The BMAP addresses ways to reduce coliforms from humans and pets, which includes sewer expansion projects, stormwater runoff management, septic tank inspections, pet waste ordinances and a Clean Marina and Boatyard program.
- Wakulla Springs Nitrate from human waste is the main pollutant to Wakulla Springs, and Tallahassee’s wastewater treatment facility and the city’s Southeast Sprayfield were identified as the main sources. Both sites were upgraded (the sprayfield was moved), greatly reducing nitrate contributions to the spring basin. The BMAP is focused on septic systems and septic to sewer hookups.
- Jackson Blue/Merritts Mill Pond Nitrate is also the primary pollutant to the Jackson Blue/Merritts Mill Pond Basin, but nitrogen fertilizer from agriculture is identified as the main source. This BMAP focuses on farmers implementing Best Management Practices (BMPs), land acquisition by the Northwest Florida Water Management District , as well as septic tanks, recognizing their nitrogen contribution to Merritts Mill Pond.
Once all the BMAPS are adopted, FDEP states that almost 14 million acres will be under active basin management, an area that includes more than 6.5 million Floridians.
Adopted and pending BMAPS in Florida. Source: FDEP Statewide Annual Report, June 2018
How are residents living in an area with a BMAP affected? It varies by BMAP and specifically land use within its boundaries. For example, in BMAPs where nitrogen from septic systems are found to be a major source of nutrient impairment to a water body, septic to sewer hookups, or septic system upgrades to more advanced treatment units will be required in specific areas. In urban areas where nitrogen fertilizer is an important source, municipalities are required to adopt fertilizer ordinances. Where nitrogen fertilizer from agricultural production is a major source of impairment, producers are required to implement Best Management Practices to reduce nitrogen loads.
More information about BMAPS
For specific information on BMAPS, FDEP has an excellent website: https://floridadep.gov/dear/water-quality-restoration/content/basin-management-action-plans-bmaps All BMAPs (full reports with specific action items listed) can be found there, along with maps, information about upcoming meetings and webinars and other pertinent information.
Your local Health Department Office is the best resource regarding septic systems and any ordinances that may apply to you depending on where you live. Your Water Management District (in the Panhandle it’s the Northwest Florida Water Management District) is also an excellent resource and staff can let you know whether or not you live or farm in an area with a BMAP and how that may affect you.
Young Longleaf Pine
All of Florida’s ecosystems contain pine trees. There are seven native species in the state; Sand, Slash, Spruce, Shortleaf, Loblolly, Longleaf, and Pond. Each species grows best in its particular environment. Pines are highly important to wildlife habitats as food and shelter. Several species are equally valuable to Florida’s economy. Slash, Loblolly, and Longleaf are cultivated and managed to provide useful products such as paper, industrial chemicals, and lumber. All pines are evergreens, meaning they keep foliage year-round. The leaves emerge from the axil of each scale leaf into long slender needles clustered together in bundles. Needles are produced at the growing tips of each branch and remain on the tree for several years before turning reddish-brown and falling off. The bundles are referred to as “fascicles”. The length and number of needles in each fascicle is one way to help identify the different pine species.
A handy rule of thumb is that pines starting with “S” have needles in twos, while pines starting with “L” have needles in threes. And slash pine, which starts with “SL” has needles in twos and threes. The pond pine is also a three-needled fascicle. Pay attention to their length and the number that are held in a fascicle. Because the numbers per fascicle may vary, be sure to check several fascicles to get an overall sense for the plant! Longleaf has the longest needle, measuring over 10 inches. While sand pine has the shortest needles at around 2 inches in length. Pine cones are also a means for identification. Typically the longer the needle, the bigger the cone. But, they also vary in attachment and “spinyness’.
Cone of Loblolly Pine, attached directly to the stem
The outer (dorsal) surface of each seed cone scale has a diamond-shaped bulge, or “umbo,” formed by the first year’s growth. The umbo may or may not be armored with a “prickle,” a sharp point but not quite a spine or thorn, at the tip. As the seed cone continues to grow and expand, the exposed area at the end of each scale grows as well. The larger diamond-shaped area around the umbo, formed in the second year of growth, is called the “apophysis.” The shapes of the prickle, umbo, and apophysis can be helpful in identification. The male and female cones are separate structures, but both are present on the same plant. Pollen is produced by male cones and is carried by the wind to female cones where it fertilizes the ovules. Seeds develop and mature inside the female cones (also called the seed cones) for two years, protected by a series of tightly overlapping woody scales. Some pines open their seed cones after two years to release the seeds, while other pines continue to keep their cones tightly closed past maturity and release seeds in response to the heat of a forest fire.
To learn more about Florida’s pines and helpful hint on identification go to:
A prescribed fire burns safely in a natural area. Photo by Holly Ober.
Most plant and wildlife communities in Florida are adapted to periodic fires. For thousands of years, fires were ignited naturally, and frequently, by lightning. In fact, Florida has the greatest number of lightning strikes of any state in the country. About 1,000 lightning-set fires are documented in Florida each year.
Today, due to the many people living in Florida, the vast majority of fires naturally ignited by lightning are quickly suppressed by trained personnel. This is done to reduce the loss of human life and property. Although helpful to human safety in the short term, suppression of fire from natural areas for long periods of time can be problematic for all the native plant communities and wildlife that are adapted to periodic fire, and ultimately dangerous for humans as well. The longer our natural areas go unburned, the greater the accumulation of vegetative material that could serve as fuel for fire, and the greater the possibility of uncontrollable wildfires devastating natural areas, homes, and buildings when lightning strikes.
PRESCRIBED FIRES are an important tool: they are a safe alternative to wildfires. Prescribed fires are intentionally set under favorable weather conditions with the goal of stimulating the ecological benefits produced by natural wildfires. By selecting safe conditions for these burns and by preparing for them in advance by creating barriers to halt the spread of fire past desired borders, trained personnel have much more control over the results of these fires. The reason we often see and smell smoke in the spring is because this is the most popular time of year to use prescribed burning as a forest management tool.
Below are some of the benefits fire provides to the health of the many plants and wildlife that naturally occur in our state.
- Fire maintains required habitat conditions for many of Florida’s plant and wildlife species.
- Fire promotes fruit production of many woody plant species.
- Fire promotes flowering of herbaceous (non-woody) plant species.
- Fire promotes diverse herbaceous plants that serve as food for insects and wildlife.
- Fire scarifies seeds, breaking down their hard seed coats and promoting germination.
- Fire prepares sites for seeding or planting of species that require bare mineral soil.
- Fire creates growing conditions required by some cone-bearing trees. It reduces leaf litter on the soil surface, increases nutrient reserves, and canopy openings so that sunlight can reach the forest floor.
- Fire releases nutrients bound up in dead organic matter, ultimately increasing palatability, digestibility, and nutritional value of growing plants for wildlife.
- Fire can improve the quality of forage for grazing livestock.
- Fire changes the density of trees in the forest, creating space for some wildlife species.
- Fire removes hardwood thickets and vines in the understory of pine forests, making these areas more suitable for some wildlife species.
- Fire controls insect pests and diseases that afflict pine trees.
- Fire increases the rate of nutrient cycling of some elements and elevates soil pH.
- Fire creates a diverse habitat conditions when fires are patchy, leaving pockets of unburned areas.
- Fire reduces the risk of severe, high intensity wildfires that could cause harm to native plants and wildlife by preventing the accumulation of highly-flammable, dead vegetation.
The last week in January has been designated as Prescribed Fire Awareness Week in Florida. Early February has been designated as Prescribed Fire Awareness Week in Georgia. March is Prescribed Fire Awareness Month in South Carolina. Why are so many southern states making a big deal about prescribed fire? It is because we have recognized the importance of safe fires for both the health of our native plants and wildlife as well as the safety of our human residents and visitors. If you see or smell smoke in a nearby natural area, it might well be coming from a prescribed fire intended to benefit our natural plants and wildlife as well as our safety.
To learn more about prescribed burning in Florida, visit https://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Florida-Forest-Service/Wildland-Fire/Prescribed-Fire
By Vance Crain and Andrea Albertin
Fisherman with a large Shoal Bass in the Apalachicola-Chattahootchee-Flint River Basin. Photo credit: S. Sammons
Along the Chipola River in Florida’s Panhandle, farmers are doing their part to protect critical Shoal Bass habitat by implementing agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs) that reduce sediment and nutrient runoff, and help conserve water.
Florida’s Shoal Bass
Lurking in the clear spring-fed Chipola River among limerock shoals and eel grass, is a predatory powerhouse, perfectly camouflaged in green and olive with tiger stripes along its body. The Shoal Bass (a species of Black Bass) tips the scale at just under 6 lbs. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in power. Unlike any other bass, and found nowhere else in Florida, anglers travel long distances for a chance to pursue it. Floating along the swift current, rocks, and shoals will make you feel like you’ve been transported hundreds of miles away to the Georgia Piedmont, and it’s only the Live Oaks and palms overhanging the river that remind you that you’re still in Florida, and in a truly unique place.
Native to only one river basin in the world, the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin, habitat loss is putting this species at risk. The Shoal Bass is a fluvial specialist, which means it can only survive in flowing water. Dams and reservoirs have eliminated habitat and isolated populations. Sediment runoff into waterways smothers habitat and prevents the species from reproducing.
In the Chipola River, the population is stable but its range is limited. Some of the most robust Shoal Bass numbers are found in a 6.5-mile section between the Peacock Bridge and Johnny Boy boat ramp. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has turned this section into a Shoal Bass catch and release only zone to protect the population. However, impacts from agricultural production and ranching, like erosion and nutrient runoff can degrade the habitat needed for the Shoal Bass to spawn.
Preferred Shoal Bass habitat, a shoal in the Chipola River. Photo credit: V. Crain
Shoal Bass habitat conservation and BMPs
In 2010, the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership (SARP), the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and a group of scientists (the Black Bass Committee) developed the Native Black Bass Initiative. The goal of the initiative is to increase research and the protection of three Black Bass species native to the Southeast, including the Shoal Bass. It also defined the Shoal Bass as a keystone species, meaning protection of this apex predators’ habitat benefits a host of other threatened and endangered species.
Along the Chipola River, farmers are teaming up with SARP and other partners to protect Shoal Bass habitat and improve farming operations through BMP implementation. A major goal is to protect the river’s riparian zones (the areas along the borders). When healthy, these areas act like sponges by absorbing nutrients and sediment runoff. Livestock often degrade riparian zones by trampling vegetation and destroying the streambank when they go down to a river to drink. Farmers are installing alternative water supplies, like water wells and troughs in fields, and fencing out cattle from waterways to protect these buffer areas and improve water quality. Row crop farmers are helping conserve water in the river basin by using advanced irrigation technologies like soil moisture sensors to better inform irrigation scheduling and variable rate irrigation to increase irrigation efficiency. Cost-share funding from SARP, the USDA-NRCS and FDACS provide resources and technical expertise for farmers to implement these BMPs.
Holstein drinking from a water trough in the field, instead of going down to the river to get water which can cause erosion and problems with water quality. Photo credit: V. Crain
By working together in the Chipola River Basin, farmers, fisheries scientists and resource managers are helping ensure that critical habitat for Shoal Bass remains healthy. Not only is this important for the species and resource, but it will ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy this unique river and seeing one of these fish. So the next time you catch a Shoal Bass, thank a farmer.
For more information about BMPs and cost-share opportunities available for farmers and ranchers, contact your local FDACS field technician: https://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Agricultural-Water-Policy/Organization-Staff and NRCS field office USDA-NRCS field office: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/fl/contact/local/ For questions regarding the Native Black Bass Initiative or Shoal Bass habitat conservation, contact Vance Crain at firstname.lastname@example.org
Vance Crain is the Native Black Bass Initiative Coordinator for the Southeast Aquatic Resource Partnership (SARP).