Experts Warn: Fort Pickens to Face a Devastating Crisis

Toni Koraza
Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash

Located on the beautiful Santa Rosa Island in Escambia County, Fort Pickens guards one of the westernmost points in Florida.

The fort is national pride and heritage. It’s one of the rare southern establishments that stood strong on the Union side during the American Civil War. The fort remained in military function until 1947, when it opened its doors for new opportunities. U.S. Airforce and military still have facilities alongside the island, but Fort Pickens is not one of them anymore.

The local population has strong emotional ties to Fort Pickens, part duo to fundamental American history, and part to the fort being a touristic hotspot, attracting over 700,000 visitors annually.

Some 185 thousand people reside alongside this 40-mile long reef island in West Florida. Tourism and history are crucial for Navarre, Pace, and Gulf Breeze communities — the biggest residential groups on the island.
However, Fort Pickens is not just an attraction and a gateway to history. It’s also the battleground zero for abrupt climate change.

Fort Pickens Road is the only street leading to the historic site and the glaring indicator of the climate problems on the reef island. The island is made of flat sand dunes, but you can hardly see any dunes nowadays. Main roads had to be moved and restructured, urging the park and county representatives to do something more than repeating the same thing over and over again.

County Road 399 was destroyed, washed over, and rebuilt more times than archives can count. Hurricane Opal, Hurricane Ivan, Tropical Storm Arlen, Hurricane Dennis, Hurricane Katrina, Tropical Storm Claudette, and Hurricane Irma are just some of the big names that devastated the communities and history of Santa Rosa Island in the past 25 years.

2020 was the most devastating year on record when it comes to extreme weather, with 30 named stormes globally. America suffered 12 named storms, racking devastating economic damage and human loss across the country. Somehow, luckily, Florida didn’t have it as bad as Georga and Missippi. Unfortunately, even Texas froze over in March, causing shortages of basic necessities across the state.

While America indeed had suffered a devastating number of hurricanes, they all missed the Sunshine State — except the Tropical Storm Eta that hit the Florida Keys in late November. Scientists believe this is partially due to pure luck and partially to environmental efforts focusing on sustainability and protection. Planning is essential in this regard.

Santa Rosa reef enjoyed a calm year with zero named storms hitting its shores and destroying the roads and buildings. However, this is not a guarantee but more of what seems to be a lucky draw on a drunk game of roulette.

After every major storm that hits surrounding areas of Fort Pickens, the debate about rebuilding comes about. Each time, the Park Authority and the Federal Highway Administration decided to rebuild the few roads on the island, bearing a bigger coast and more invested time and effort.

The shockingly bad hurricane season of 2004 and 2005 closed the Fort Pickens Road for the following years. It only reopened in 2009.

If a similar storm destroys roads leading to Fort Pickens and floods the surrounding areas, the authorities may choose not to rebuild the road, Rendering the fort inaccessible by motor vehicles. Another glaring problem is the rising tides and narrowing of the island that support these constructions. Santa Rosa is growing tinner each year, and soon it may completely disappear from the map.

Some estimates place it entirely underwater by 2100, and others say the end may come sooner because the rising tides would cut off the affordable means of transportation, urging people to relocate to northern parts of Florida, or at least to Pensacola, a city that’s facing a similar destiny as the island.

While the public can agree or disagree about the cause of climate disruption and extreme weather events, NASA and scientific communities agree that the pace of deteriorating weather conditions is due to man’s influence.

What would happen to Fort Pickens?

It will become a lesson for the history books, something that we can tell our kids and grandchildren that we saw once, a long time ago in a different world.

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