Volunteers help Gatorama rebuild after hurricane

OKEECHOBEE — Volunteers are helping to repair the Gatorama attraction, pitching in to help deal with the major damage wrought when Category 3 Hurricane Irma roared through on Sept. 10-11.

Andy Higginbotham (foreground), a volunteer from LaBelle, helps Allen Register (left) and Curator Greg Graziani with cleanup on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Photo courtesy of Gatorama.

The working alligator farm that features tours of its enclosures, exhibits and habitat boardwalk year-round as well as an annual Gator Hatching Festival, which wrapped up the week before Irma formed, closed the Friday before the storm and suffered many thousands of dollars’ worth of damage, owner Patty Register said in a phone interview Sept. 22. As skies finally were clearing two days after the storm passed through, she posted a message on the park’s website with a few photos: “All we can do is evaluate what’s been left behind, and try to find a way to pick up the pieces. We will be closed until we can rebuild and it is safe for our guests to enjoy our facility. The power may be out, but our light shines bright.”

Some of that light came through assistance from Patty and Allen Register’s daughter Erica Barker of Orlando, who headed south after the storm, arranged for propane deliveries to keep her parents’ generator running and carried a prescription for her dad (who had an infected wound on his hand) that she had to pick up in Clermont.

“Once we got to their farm, it was hard not to cry,” Ms. Barker wrote in a Facebook post.

“Nothing was left untouched. Seeing the [walkway] bridge blown over was shocking, but branches, trees, just so much to clean up.” Fisheating Creek, which flooded the property and also did widespread damage, hadn’t even crested yet. “And they aren’t alone – it’s the same story for their friends and neighbors, for my hometown, LaBelle.”

Said her mom on Gatorama.com: “Although she isn’t a farm girl anymore, Erica wanted to find a way to help. She worked with our amazing Web guru, Tricia, to create a fundraiser for Gatorama! She wrote a post on Facebook and so many amazing people asked how they could help us rebuild!”

A couple of the primates from The Talkin’ Monkeys Project were housed inside Gatorama’s gift shop for several days after the storm. Photo courtesy of Gatorama.

Ms. Register and her husband rode out the hurricane at Gatorama, and they had a cadre of chattering companions to keep them awake if Irma’s winds and deluges didn’t. “We sheltered at our gift shop and home, and we also sheltered The Talkin’ Monkeys Project,” Patty said, explaining that the operators of that primate sanctuary in Pioneer, near Clewiston, had been ordered to evacuate. “I think they had 14 or so apes, gibbons and monkeys in our gift shop for four days. We were happy to do that for them,” she stated.

“But then we suffered a tremendous amount of damage,” Ms. Register added. “Our docks stayed up, but our sides and tops to the walkway over the creek fell over. The enclosure got ripped up a little bit. We had lots of downed trees, which we are still trying to cut down, and there was a tremendous amount of flooding from Fisheating Creek. We understand that the lake is going to rise a lot higher, so we’re anticipating continued flooding.

“We did not lose any gators or any other animals. Everything is counted and accounted for,” she finished.

The park’s website, which usually shows pictures of happy children hatching baby alligators and the expansive grounds that house its wild alligators, crocodiles and lizards, now has photos of the attraction’s damaged features with buttons to click on for making donations. The costs Gatorama is facing, Ms. Register said, start with repairs to their enclosed walkway over the creek, estimated at about $10,000; extensive rebuilding for the animal enclosures, pegged at $20,000 or more; plus cleanup and equipment rental, estimated at $6,000. She said the park’s new alligator hatchlings also will require extra care and resources.

Gatorama Curator Greg Graziani deals with a riled-up alligator while surveying damage to the park after Irma. Photo courtesy of Gatorama.

“The parts of our park that were flooded and destroyed are not covered by insurance or FEMA or, really, the Small Business Administration,” she said, explaining that although they are eligible for disaster assistance, “SBA loans are usually for three months or six months, but if you’re closed down for three months, that really wouldn’t help. And FEMA only helps individuals, not businesses.”

Ms. Register added, however: “We are embarking on a rebuilding campaign and have had lots of good response from our guests over the years, and lots of them are coming to help us, and have even donated financially to help pay for the rebuild. We want to personally thank every person who donates and … once we can get the computers up and running, will be creating several different ways to thank our donors in really cool ways.” She’s hoping they can get Gatorama open again by early to mid-October.

With that, she said, “I’ve got to get cooking. We’ve got a whole army of volunteers coming tomorrow to help.”

One of the park’s alligators suns itself atop the creek walkway structure that was blown over during Hurricane Irma. Photo courtesy of Gatorama.

 

Group of Gatorama volunteers to help clean up Hurricane Irma damage. Photo courtesy of Gatorama.

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