If you've driven on State Road 30A recently, you may have noticed a lot of heavy equipment coming in and out of the woods. On Oct. 17, the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve received the go-ahead to begin debris cleanup operations with KaiserKane Storm Disaster Recovery Services. A fleet of track hoes, skid steers, mini excavators, airboat, swamp excavator, and debris haulers two double-compartment dump trucks completed the primary operation the evening of Nov. 17.

In 24 days - 12- to 14-hour working days no less - it is estimated that 27,613 cubic yards of debris were removed from the preserve and taken to a dump in Blountstown. Much of the debris Hurricane Michael brought included boardwalks, outdoor furniture, propane tanks, and almost anything you'd find in a garage. The largest propane tank found held 500 gallons. Other large items cleaned up included hot tubs and even a couple cars!

Allix North, one of the preserve’s Environmental Specialists, spent weeks walking the road edge and documenting the span of the debris field within the preserve. She also used drone imagery, and she produced a map pinpointing the larger debris pieces. The preserve contains many delicate habitats, many of which were impacted by debris but would be further disturbed by large equipment. In order to create as little impact as possible, Allix directed the cleanup crew through old timber roads and firelines that need to be maintained for the coming fire season.

Although most disturbance was limited to the interior, Money Bayou was not completely spared a cut. About a third of the total debris collected was found within the marsh, so the area was a spot of frequent traffic. To mitigate for damage to the wetland, the swamp excavator drove in a single path through the grasses rather than multiple passes across the marsh. "Marsh mats," plastic platforms that stabilize mucky ground, were also used to limit erosion. The Buffer Preserve has already made plans with partner Conservation Corps of the Forgotten and Emerald Coast to grow plants for restoration of Money Bayou.

As the cleanup reaches completion, Allix and other preserve staff are finally breathing a breath of fresh air.

“The process of planning out and implementing the Hurricane Michael Catastrophic debris clean up started just weeks after the hurricane made landfall,” she said. “Now 14 months later my hopes of having the debris removed have come to a joyous end. We can now begin the next step in restoring the fragile marsh habitat that has been disturbed, continuing the Preserve’s mission of conserving, preserving, and restoring our natural and cultural resources.”

New website

The St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve has a new website after the Friends support organization had to change the domain name due a communication issue.

The new website is stjosephbaypreserve.com.