Signs of rebirth

It’s been one month since Hurricane Michael ripped through Roaring Creek Farm.

Some progress is being made in cleaning up the debris from a thousand toppled trees although I still think it will take close to one year to finish the job.

Nature is  renewing itself.

Fresh green leaves are beginning to reappear on the trees that had been stripped by the 130 mph wind.

And in a bit of an oddity for November, blooms have burst open on some of my plum and peach trees. I don’t know if they were confused by the storm or the warmer than usual fall weather.

I had feared the wild turkeys that call the farm home had not survived, but plots planted with chufa show otherwise as within the last week turkeys have torn the ground to get at the  chufa’s tubers.

There are fresh deer tracks, and I spotted a covey of quail this past weekend.

The beauty of Roaring Creek Farm is returning slowly. The road ahead is long, but we will get there.


What to do? What to do?

Mayor Lenny Curry and his JEA board buddies are in a pickle.

Or maybe a bind.

Or a jam.

At the very least they are face to face with a conundrum.

If JEA’s board names Aaron Zahn the utilities’ next CEO, even if he is the most qualified of the candidates for the job, which he isn’t, the cries will be loud that the fix was in from the beginning, that Curry was pulling the strings of hand-picked puppets he appointed to what’s supposed to be an independent authority to select Zahn, Curry’s friend and supporter.

Even though Zahn is going up against other candidates with much stronger resumes, one board member said the interim CEO deserved to make it to the final round because of his “passion” for the job.

Passion is a good thing, but it has its limits as a qualification for a job.

For example, Curry has a passion for football, but that doesn’t qualify him to coach the Jaguars.

There’s another strange twist in this intriguing episode. The board is considering making background checks on the candidates simply a “pass/fail” affair because otherwise details would be part of the public record.

That certainly leaves a very big “hmmm” in the room.

And Election Day added another  ingredient to the brine this pickle is curing in.

Almost three-quarters of Jacksonville’s voters approved a straw ballot measure that said voters should have a say in whether the city-owned utility is sold, an underlying theme of this whole drama about the control of JEA.

A conundrum indeed.



Hope after the storm

When Hurricane Michael carved its disastrous path across the Florida Panhandle, the eastern edge of the eye moved directly over Roaring Creek Farm.

The 130 mph winds toppled a thousand longleaf pines and 100-year-old hardwoods.

The creek-carved bottoms that lace through the property are now a tangled mess.

The morning after the storm I drove to the farm from my home in Jacksonville to check for damage.

The closer I got the havoc left behind by Michael intensified. Quincy was hurt but not as badly as Gretna.

I dodged toppled trees on U.S. 90 to make my way past Mount Pleasant and Oak Grove.

The dead-end road to my farm was blocked by downed trees and power lines.

I scrambled through the wreckage until I could peer around a corner: Our cabin and barn were still intact.

At that moment, even though the farm had been left scarred by Michael, I knew we were luckier than so many who lost much more.

We are now into week four of the cleanup. The work is likely to take a year.

A young forester who works with us left me with these words after seeing the damage: “Nature has a way of healing itself.”

I’m already starting to see signs of that. The birds are back, and there’s evidence that the deer and turkey are as well.

I’ve spotted one of my favorite animals several times – a silver fox squirrel who survived the howling winds and falling trees.

Trees left standing but with most of their leaves stripped off are beginning to bud.

There is still beauty at Roaring Creek Farm.

During one of the nights after the storm passed, the sky was clear and moonless. The stars sparkled so brightly that even the Milky Way was clearly visible, stretching across the horizon.

And the sunsets over the farm’s pond are still mesmerizing.

It will take time, but nature will heal itself.



Some days it’s hard to carry on

My first experience with violence was etched into my memory shortly before I was 2 years old.

My grandfather was a police reporter for the San Antonio Light, and he and my grandmother lived on a farm outside of San Antonio on the Corpus Christi Highway.

A short distance to the south from their home was Hilltop, which consisted of a gas station, a store and a locker where people could store frozen goods. It was long before people had freezers in their homes.

My grandfather heard that something was happening at Hilltop, and he headed that way.

Being a baby attached to his grandfather, I didn’t want him to leave. He took me with him.

The gas station had been robbed and three men murdered. To this day, seven decades later, I can still see their bloodied bodies.

I first witnessed the joining of violence and pure evil in August 1973 in Houston.

I was a reporter for United Press International working the night shift. A source called and said I should come to a boat storage shed in a remote part of the city.

I watched as detectives dug in one of the units and began recovering the bodies of young boys and teenagers who had been tortured, raped, murdered and buried there, their bodies stuffed into garbage bags and covered in lye.

I didn’t think the stench from the decay would ever leave me.

As midnight approached, the body count grew as the officers dug.

I reported the growing number to my editors in the Dallas UPI office.

“Who says there are that many victims?” they asked.

“I do,” I said. “I’m counting them as they pull the bodies from their grave.”

Before the search at the boat shed and other locations was over, 28 victims of Dean Allen Corll and his teenage accomplices, Elmer Wayne Henley and David Owen Brooks, had been found. More likely went undiscovered.

I had hoped such evil would be the rare exception. Now 70 years old, I have a gnawing fear that it is not.

Mass murders in schools, at concerts, during worship services no longer jar us beyond the initial revulsion that too readily fades as news cycles move onto other things.

The stench of that boat shed and the sight of those bloodied bodies in an obscure Texas gas station have never left me.

But the onslaught of violence – the assassinations, the Vietnam war, four dead in Ohio, the endless wars in the Mideast, the terrorist attacks, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Pittsburgh, a Tallahassee yoga studio – leaves me, and others I suspect, numb.

I grew disillusioned with the church when so many Christians condoned the atrocities of the Vietnam War.

I grow more disillusioned today as so many Christians condone the words and actions of a president that are far removed from the teachings of Christ.

I fear for our souls and the soul of our country.




Hocus Pocus from Lenny and the Sheriff

It was comical as well as maddening watching efforts by First Coast News to drag out of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office exactly how many police officers are employed by the agency now.

JSO, under the leadership of Mr. Transparency Mike Williams, kept telling the news station that number wasn’t available.

Come on. The agency doesn’t know how many people are on its payroll?

And kudos to First Coast New for asking the question every day until the information was forthcoming.

The  number is a sensitive issue for the sheriff and Mayor Lenny Curry. As you might recall, Curry hammered Mayor Alvin Brown during their campaign battle for reducing the number of police, basically saying that Brown was responsible for the city’s high murder rate.

In Curry’s current re-election campaign television ads, he boasts of adding 180 police officers to ensure public safety. If that was the answer to violent crime, as  Curry contended in his first mayoral race, why are most days in Jacksonville still marked by murders?

The first answer is that Curry is highballing the number.

According to figures finally released by JSO, 523 officers have been hired since Curry and Williams took office on  July 1, 2015.

However, 70 of those have left the agency, another 236 officers have retired and 80 officers resigned or were terminated.

That means the net gain is 137 officers, not the 180 that Curry touts.

JSO points out that another 23 recruits have just started at the training academy. That would bring the number go 160. However, officers now on the force will likely retire or move onto other jobs, which will lessen the impact of the 23 new officers, if all of them make it through the academy.

That number 23 is interesting in itself. During the debate over the pension reform pushed by Curry, an argument was made that it will be difficult to recruit new hires who would fall under a defined contribution plan instead of a more lucrative defined benefit pension being offered by most law enforcement agencies in the state.

Previous classes have had 30 and 31 graduates, so that prediction of recruitment difficulties could very well be playing out.

And we will see in the next few years if another prediction holds true: New hires will work at  JSO for a few years, gain valuable training and experience, collect a defined contribution nest egg and then move to a department that has a defined benefit plan.

Curry’s accusations about the number of police officers lost during the Brown administration was always built on a false narrative.

It began with Brown’s first budget in 2011-12 and JSO’s claim that it cut 71 officers.

As I wrote in an April 2015 column for the Times-Union, the reality was this: Included in that 71 number were 28 school resource officers and 13 officers who provided security at JaxPort,

Those officers were not patrolling the streets of Jacksonville. And those positions weren’t lost; they were privatized.

Another 10 officers were transferred to a federal program.

The net loss from the 71 was actually 20, and the loss of 147 total that Curry continues to hammer Brown on was really 96.

That leads to one final question: With 137 more officers patrolling the streets of Jacksonville, which more than makes up for the 96 lost under Brown, why is mayhem still the order of the day?

If it was Brown’s fault then, is it Curry’s fault now?



Save Julington-Durbin Creek Peninsula

I listened to John Delaney on WJCT radio Wednesday morning trying to defend the indefensible — allowing a developer to build 1,400 homes on 403 acres of the Julington -Durbin Creek Peninsula, conservation land that was supposed to be protected from development forever.

Of course, I’m disappointed that Delaney, who did so much for the environment when he served as mayor of Jacksonville, is so easily slipping into what will soon be his new role as a lobbyist for developers among others.

In my former job as a columnist for The Florida Times-Union, I wrote many times that Delaney’s legacy as mayor would not be the buildings that came with his Better Jacksonville Plan. Instead it would be the tens of thousands of acres he had placed into conservation through his Preservation Project.

The BJP buildings will grow old one day and have to be replaced. The conservation lands would be protected forever, but apparently not in Delaney’s new view.

That tarnishes his legacy.

Delaney argues there’s only one choice: Swap the 403 acres on the peninsula in the Southside for 403 acres on Black Hammock Island on the Northside.

If that isn’t done, those acres on Black Hammock Island will be developed, Delaney said; the choice: Damage the peninsula or the island.

Delaney’s main arguments are that with development on the island would come hundreds of septic tanks that would pollute the surrounding waterways and that what is in effect a national park, the Timucuan preserve, is not the place for a housing development.

He’s right on both counts.

But why would the state allow septic tanks to go there at the same time the state is spending millions of dollars to replace septic tanks that have polluted the Indian River Lagoon?

And there’s the additional problem that the roadways on the island are inadequate to handle the traffic that would come with a housing development.

So maybe the development on the island isn’t “ready to go,” as Delaney said on the radio show, especially if the new governor of Florida, not Adam Putnam, actually believes in growth management, unlike Rick Scott.

There is another choice: The state could buy the Black Hammock Island parcel, preserving it and leaving the peninsula alone.

Delaney said he would love to see that but insists there’s no money to do it.

As Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, pointed out on the same program, there is money available.

The state Legislature and governor simply have to heed the will of the voters who overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state Constitution requiring that hundreds of millions of dollars be spent on preserving land.

Maybe the next governor, not Putnam or Ron DeSantis, will take the will of the people seriously and not ignore that admonition.

This issue of placing a mega housing development on spectacular conservation property that was supposed to be preserved in perpetuity clearly has angered people. Translate that anger into votes this fall.



Guess what rolls downhill and into the St. Johns River

The polite name is biosolids, but let’s use the more descriptive term: sewage sludge.

That’s what is left after treatment plants finish processing human waste, and it’s full of nitrogen and phosphorous compounds.

What to do with the stuff? Here’s a swell idea: Spread it on pastures and agricultural fields as fertilizer.

The brain trust in Florida did that for years until it nearly killed the Everglades and other South Florida waterways, filling them with toxic algae.

Reacting to outrage over the slime, the Legislature took action to protect the Lake Okeechobee, Kisseemee River, Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River watershed.

Lesson learned, right? Come on, this is Florida.

Now more of the sewage sludge is being spread in fields in the Upper Basin of the St. Johns River.

Kevin Spear, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel who covers the environment, wrote about this last April, writing in part:

Most biosolid sludge – either raw or refined – is spread on farms and pastures in a state laced with wetlands, rivers and lakes.

“What is actually happening is we are using our agriculture lands as solid-waste disposal sites for sludge,” said Gary Roderick, an environmental consultant in Martin County, where he formerly was the county’s head of water quality.

Echoing opponents of the practice, Roderick said farms and ranches are overdosed with sludge, accumulating a damaging source of pollution able to trigger a green invasion of harmful algae in rivers and lakes.

One of those opponents is Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper. She notes that Blue Cypress Lake, once pristine, is now being overloaded with phosphorous from the sludge,.

“We cannot stand silent and watch the degradation of the headwaters of the St. Johns River and the undermining of dowstream water quality,” Rinaman told the St. Johns River Water Management District in urging the board to take action before it’s too late.

Wait a minute. Didn’t we just spend $250 million and years of effort to restore the Upper Basin of the St. Johns River, and now we are just standing idly by and letting the river be degraded again?

Of course we are. As I said, this is Florida.

When it comes to protecting the health of the St. Johns, we tend to live in silos. In Jacksonville, we worry about what the deep dredge of the river’s channel will do to the river’s health.

We had better also be concerned about what’s happening in the Upper Basin because what rolls downhill there will eventually roll through Jacksonville.