|By Curtis Morgan, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 23, 2009 --What Katrina and Wilma started, wrecking crews finally finished in Everglades National Park. Flamingo Lodge, for a half century a landmark overlooking Florida Bay, has been reduced to rubble.
The hotel -- never exactly The Ritz in its best days -- has been in ruins since back-to-back guttings by hurricanes in 2005.
But watching the crumbling walls fall during the last few weeks nonetheless saddened park regulars. The humble lodge, the last stop 38 miles down the park's main road, offered things found nowhere else in the park: bed, bath and air-conditioned escape from relentless mosquitoes.
"The place was a pit, but it was the only pit in town," joked Steve Lester, a kayaker and birder from Fort Lauderdale who stayed there regularly. "My wife hasn't been anywhere near Flamingo since the lodge closed."
She won't be visiting anytime soon, either. Though the razing clears the way for something new and improved, the prospects for replacing the lodge are dim. It could be years, if it happens at all.
Park managers recently pitched a smaller and storm-resistant hotel as a candidate for stimulus funding from the Obama administration.
The proposal didn't make the cut, said Superintendent Dan Kimball, mainly because rebuilding plans aren't far enough along yet. In August, the park unveiled plans for a $20 million-plus makeover of the lodge, along with the nearby marina and the rest of the aging outpost, but it was not the sort of detailed blueprint ready to put out to bid.
"I don't think anyone is debating that it's shovel-worthy," Kimball said. "It's just not shovel-ready yet."
Kimball and the National Park Service support the rebuilding, but finding money remains a huge hurdle.
The park service hasn't built a lodge on its own for three decades, and unless President Barack Obama begins pouring tens of millions more into the chronically underfunded agency, a public-private partnership appears the best hope.
The demise of the lodge and the uncertain future has frustrated anglers, fishing guides, bird-watchers, star-gazers and the hardy sorts of tourists who make the 38-mile drive west-southwest of the park's Florida City entrance.
Built in 1959 to cater to growing numbers of tourists traveling by car, the two-story building and adjacent rustic cottages were humble but offered unique, and convenient, access to the park's bird-rich coast and fish-rich back country waters.
The place was half-filled at most during the summer, when buzzing blood-suckers drive off most visitors, but in winter it was often packed.
After Katrina and Wilma flooded the building with several feet of bay water and a six-inch layer of Florida Bay mud, park managers eventually decided the buildings would be too costly to repair and would remain vulnerable to future hurricanes.
The park's general plans call for replacing the lodge and already razed cabins with a 30-room hotel and 24 cottages -- all built to stricter modern construction codes and elevated on stilts. Another 40 "eco-tent" structures could be used during cooler winter months and quickly moved for hurricanes.
For now, the plan calls for Flamingo's looks to go back to its past with designs evoking "cracker-style" structures that once dotted the area. From the late 1800s until the park opened in 1947, Flamingo was a small village populated largely by fishermen, moonshiners and plume hunters.
Although a new lodge may be years off, the park has reopened campgrounds in Flamingo and by later this year plans to run electricity to the camper and recreational vehicle area -- meaning visitors won't have to endure roaring generators. The marina also expects to get two houseboats, the first replacements for a fleet of eight sunk and damaged in 2005.
One group, the National Parks Conservation Association, is pushing for the Obama administration to fund a master site plan.
Jacqueline Crucet, a conservation association coordinator, said nothing can happen at Flamingo until that detailed blueprint gets done. Right now, even that plan, which she said could run $500,000, could be years away.
"You need the plan before you build the hotel," she said. "We need to have this plan funded now so we can give Flamingo back to another generation."
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