Tracking the CleanupMay 01, 2023 03:33PM ● By Andrea Stetson
Ursula Gibbons, a volunteer at Delnor-Wiggins State Park and the president of Friends of Delnor-Wiggins State Park, has been doing a bi-weekly blog on Facebook, updating people on the progress being made at the park, which was devastated by hurricane Ian. Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park looks a lot different now without its thick vegetation. The trees are sparser, but many did survive the storm. Photo by Ursula Gibbons
Behind the closed gates, beyond the orange plastic fencing on the sand, sits Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park. It has been closed since hurricane Ian barreled into Southwest Florida on September 28, demolishing the ranger station, restrooms, pavilion, roads, and trees and leaving mounds of debris on the beach. Since then crews have been cleaning up the mess. Every grain of sand is being sifted to remove the dangerous construction material and other debris. Roads are being cleared, infrastructure is being restored.
All this takes time. The park, on the north side of Naples, is expected to be closed for at least a year, and that has left people wondering about what is going on behind the scenes of this usually pristine piece of paradise. Park volunteer and president of Friends of Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, Ursula Gibbons, has taken the mystery out of this by posting weekly blogs and photos on the organization’s Facebook page providing detailed updates.
“When the storm hit I was trying to make sure people were up to date on what was going on,” Gibbons explains. “I was just trying to keep everyone informed. I was trying to keep everything on the positive side and keep everyone hopeful. It is giving the details, the lowdown on what is going on. I feel that people are more understanding now that they can see what is happening.”
The first posts were uplifting in a time of sadness. On September 30 it was a photo of the stuffed animals, wearing colorful park hoodies, that the volunteers sell as a fundraiser.
“We found these three critters on the ground and in the mangroves. I couldn’t help myself as I hugged them tight. These little ones made it through a cat 4 storm and, with dirty little faces, gave me hope. I knew I had to bring them home and give them a bit of pampering,” Gibbons wrote.
They were later donated to Humane Society Naples and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida for the animals there.
After that, the posts, written mostly by Gibbons but also by volunteer Amy Modglin, were aimed at informing people about the park, its damage, and the restoration efforts. Here are some of the highlights of those posts.
It is with a very heavy heart that I must inform you that Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park will be closing it gates while the park goes through the stages of demo and cleanup. The park has been deemed unsafe, which includes the beach areas and access.
On Wednesday, September 28th, hurricane Ian came ashore as a category 4 storm. Along with it came an 8ft-12ft storm surge that hit our coastline in Naples. Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, being a barrier island, sustained catastrophic damage. As the park was submerged entirely, the damage to the beach and property was extensive, and all buildings (excluding the park manager and assistant park manager homes) received irreparable damage. All bathhouses, pavilion, ranger station, and maintenance buildings, including the ranger lounge and CSO [citizen support organization] room, are considered lost. Much of the vegetation, sea oats, and dunes are gone and there is approximately 2ft-4ft of sand covering the road and parking lots. All park vehicles, such as golf carts, UTV, Argo, ATV, etc., have been lost as well. This event has changed our park forever; however, we are trying to stay focused on what we can do at this time. The plan moving forward is to have a contractor come in and do all demolition and cleanup. What will be left after that point will essentially be a clean slate for us to start over. This process is expected to take 1-2 years. The park is closed indefinitely; this includes beach access, but we will certainly keep everyone posted as our rebuilding process progresses.
We have seen the pictures of what Wiggy looks like at the moment. It is heartbreaking, yes; however, we need to focus on the future. She will be cleaned up; she will once again be our little slice of paradise. We will rebuild and we will do it as a community. We will put our toes in the warm sand and stare out at her beautiful turquoise waters and enjoy sunsets. We will create more memories, share stories, and most importantly share in our love for this park. While our park goes through this transition, let’s keep our thoughts positive and our hearts hopeful.
While we are in a bit of a holding pattern at DWSP, our rangers have been sent over to Koreshan State Historic Site.
Any time there is work to be done at the park, the first thing they look at is the impact on wildlife. The storm took its toll on our gopher tortoise population, but the good news is that we have survivors! Part of the initial process is to locate, document, and protect the ones that are around the park, and biologists are currently doing just that.
Does this look vastly different? Yes, however, it is much better than it was after the storm. The debris and dead vegetation are gone, and we are now left with a view of the water from the entrance of parking lot 1. The sand is being cleared out of the parking lots, like here in lot 2.
Most of the trash has been picked up, and now the focus seems to be on the dead vegetation.
Folks are, unfortunately, still walking onto the beach and into the park. This is a serious danger, as there is heavy equipment moving about. I know that you want to enjoy the park, but if they have to stop work to ask you to leave, it slows the whole process down. PLEASE, for your safety, stay out of the park and let the contractors do their job. Give us time to get the park rebuilt. I promise it will be worth the wait.
The front-gate ranger station has been demolished along with bathhouse 1 and the maintenance building/ranger lounge/CSO room. The amount of debris from vegetation is amazing, and it’s impressive to see how far the contractor has come and how hard they have been working. It’s important to remember that, though the beach looks cleaner, there are still debris piles and hidden dangers in the sand.
Well, the bathhouses are no more, the mangroves are still being cleaned of debris, and the mulching of “veg” continues.
The contractor continues to work on removing the smaller piles of debris from the park.
The vegetation pile that needs to be processed is smaller by the day. We are getting close to the sand-sifting phase, but that will most likely be after the New Year. They are working their way down the beach/tree line, hand raking and also cleaning the smaller bits out of the mangroves. Wiggy is looking better every day.
I got to chat with the contractor; as we talked, he pointed out a pipe and rebar that were hidden under the sand by the waterline. The fact that they are finding and getting rid of the hidden debris makes the wait much more worth it.
The contractor continues to work in area 1, pulling the top layer of sand from the beach to be sifted along with the sand in the parking lot. Seeing all of the metal and glass that was under the sand is pretty eye-opening. I’m truly grateful for the steps that they are taking to ensure that there are no hidden dangers. Cleaning up the underbrush continues as well, as workers hand rake the areas between the beach and parking lots.
There are excavators that are filling dump trucks with unscreened sand. They drive the unscreened sand over to the sifter and then the dump truck takes a load of screened, clean sand back over to the beach. The crew is working 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week. In one day they are hauling 72 loads of sand: 36 off the beach to get screened and 36 loads of fresh, clean sand back onto the beach. Each load is 20 yards, so that’s a total of 720 yards of sand off to get screened and 720 yards of clean sand back on the beach. This is what they are doing every single day. He wants to get up to 1,000 yards a day, but he explained, “The machine is like a body. If we work it too hard, it will break down, and then what have you gained?” He also explained that when you speed the machine up to make it work harder, it actually ends up depositing sand into the “trash pile.”
If you could see this machine in action, it’s literally a labor of love with every single grain of sand being removed and all of the debris being discarded. They are taking the top two feet of sand from the beach to clean the debris out. To give you an idea of how much 720 yards of sand is, it is equivalent to 972 tons. It would fill 6 football fields.
The contractor showed us a large piece of rebar, about 5 feet long, that was only six inches under the sand. He walked us over to the debris pile, and we saw pieces of wood with bolts sticking out, large chunks of concrete, organic debris, and a ton of trash. The exciting find was a sign from one of last year’s turtle nests.
We got a glimpse of the “new beach” today. It was beautiful. The sand is like powder. The day we get to share our beautiful beach with everyone is going to be so amazing.
The sand sifter is chugging away as the contractors work their way farther into area 1. All of the vegetation has been mulched and carried off, so they can check that massive task off the list. The foundation at the maintenance building and front gate/ranger station are being removed and the areas leveled.
The contractor continues to move north on the beach. They have sifted past the parking lot in area 1, and the debris pile grows bigger and bigger. From what I could see, it was a mixture of mostly roots and some debris such as signs, posts, and metal.
Everywhere we go, people are always asking us about the shell trees in area 5. Unfortunately, none of them made it through hurricane Ian. We know you miss that tradition and SO DO WE! So, we found the perfect little tree in area 5 and we started the first post-Ian shell tree! None of us wants to see this tradition go away.
I have had a few folks ask why we aren’t open yet, so I thought I would address that question. Please understand that the Florida Park Service, contractors, rangers, and managers are doing an amazing job of moving toward the goal of reopening. Hurricane Ian took out all of our buildings, much of the vegetation, and infrastructure, with parking lots and roads heavily damaged. We aren’t just a beach; we are an entire park. Many of the things we take for granted on a daily basis were lost, so it can be hard to understand the magnitude of what happened at Wiggins. Though we have made some AMAZING progress, there is still work to be done. The parking lots are full of heavy equipment, sand piles, and folks trying to work. The beach continues to be sifted, and there is heavy equipment working there as well. Wiggins is an active construction site, and it’s important that we let them continue their work, not just to speed the process but for the safety of all involved.
Posts continue every few days. There are photos of debris that keeps being washed up, photos of construction crews and what they are working on. A two-minute video was posted on Facebook showing details of the restoration (facebook.com/friends.delnorwiggins/videos/1856448954747661).
Gibbons plans to continue posting her updates. She also includes amazing photos of the wildlife that is returning.
“It’s a labor of love,” she concludes.
Andrea Stetson has been writing for magazines and newspapers in Southwest Florida since 1995. She and her family live in North Naples.