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Posted: Friday, October 13, 2017 12:00 am

Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visits the Park, committing to rebuilding what Irma destroyed.

   My assignment:  Be in Flamingo, Saturday morning, October 7th at 11 am to attend a press conference with Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke regarding the redevelopment of the Park since Hurricane Irma destroyed most of the facilities in this Everglades wonderland.

   With great anticipation, my wife, Patty and I started early.  Didn’t notice much damage as we entered the Park until we passed the pine land.  From that point west, it was apparent there would be substantial destruction ahead.  We arrived at Flamingo shortly after 9 am but still in time for the raising of our Country’s Flag

   Being the first reporters on the scene, we took the liberty to interview two informative Rangers, Tony Terry and Steve Olijnyk.  First, a quick summary of the last 25 years was given regarding past Hurricanes that hit this section of the Park.  Ranger Terry noted, “Andrew did little damage in Flamingo but caused havoc on the eastern portion of the Park towards Florida City.  It was Wilma and Katrina that hit this area closing the restaurant in 2005.  Now, as you can see, it’s Irma we must contend with.  Of the 13 living quarters for rangers and 13 additional facilities for other employees, all are presently uninhabitable.  We commute every day from Florida City and Homestead.”

  As we left the Rangers, we spotted our Washington contact, Press Secretary for the Department of Interior (DOI) Heather Swift who introduced us to Caroline Bolton (DOI) and Deputy Political Editor for Breitbart News, Amanda House.  The five of us walked the pier smelling the damage to the bait and general store long before we approached.  We stopped for pictures in front of two damaged tour boats that were washed ashore during Irma’s storm surge.  On our way back towards our cars, we were entertained by two playful manatees enjoying rushing water from a drain pipe.  Not far away a six-foot crocodile calmly posed for a few pictures perhaps hoping for a “hand out.”        Suddenly, Heathers phone broke the silence, it was time to move to the campground for the reason of our visit.

   Being with Heather, we were the first to arrive on location just before the caravan of 10 cars approached.  All gathered around Cabinet Member Zinke, Senator Marco Rubio, Congressman Bryan Mast and Superintendent of Parks, Ranger Pedro Ramos for a to-the-point presentation.  With the physical damage apparent the focus turned to the economic importance of the Everglades National Park system on a local and state level.  It was pointed out that Everglades National Park contributes 250 million dollars a year to the economy.  Superintendent Ramos added. “We need to restore now and for generations to come.”  Again, he stressed that the Park attracts local, national and international visitors.   

  With the financial impact disclosed, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke addressed the select group of reporters.  I was thrilled that he noticed my name on the News Leader shirt I was wearing.  He addressed me stepping forward to shake my hand.

  Zinke assured that President Trump is devoted to improving and maintain our National Park syste. He revealed, “it is time to reconstruct this facility with a flexible, long-term approach.  The Park is part of the Florida experience and vital to the local economy.”

  Then came the Plan of Attack we were waiting for, the economic commitment and its implementation.  Zinke continued, “we want Park Personal concentrating on management and enforcement not on flipping hamburgers. This has created a need for an innovative partnership with the private sector.  Long-term contracts with private companies have been negotiated to build and manage improvements inside the Park.”

   To show good faith, the Park system has pledged 5 million dollars to assist in this program.     

   Representatives from Guest Services Inc., including their vice-president and chief commercial officer, Scott Shepherd and vice-president Barry Trice, were present as the partners for redeveloping Flamingo.  There will be a temporary contract to get started in order capitalize on the winter tourist season. Meanwhile, a permanent contract with broad appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike, has been presented for Congressional Review.  Specific details on exactly what is to be done and the time frame for rebuilding were not given however talk of rental cabins and a restaurant buzzed around the group.

  It was time for the caravan to visit the damaged docks, store and visitor center.  Ascending towards the second floor, everyone could feel the refreshing breeze while enjoying the view of the waterway.  The euphoria ended when our senses picked up the smell and sight of the damage on the upper level.  No one could enter the western part of the building.  Ceilings were down, windows broken and the roof in need of replacement.  We visited the eastern side, which suffered lesser damage, for closing remarks.  Secretary Zinke stressed President Trump's commitment to rebuild the park and protect the waterways.  Senator Rubio told of the many outings to Flamingo that he and his family have enjoyed over the years stressing that the facilities will be built stronger to survive any possible future storms.  Ranger Ramos reminded of the economic importance of the park and was elated that restoration would begin soon.  Representative Mast expressed, “The park is part of the Florida experience for all to enjoy,” as he reminded us of the young couple from France we encountered earlier in the day.

  All left on an upbeat note feeling confident with the direction the Department of Interior is taking under the leadership of Ryan Zinke.  I'll be returning to visit Flamingo, checking on progress for future reports.    

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