ELLIOTT KEY -- When Hurricane Sandy pounded Elliott Key in Biscayne National Park in September 2012, a massive storm surge washed over the skinny island beloved by boaters and campers, ripping out piers, cracking its seawall and forcing rangers to close it.
On Thursday, the key finally reopened.
Surge-proof piers, built to withstand fierce storm water as well as rising sea levels, now jut into its harbor. A rebuilt boardwalk stretches along the ocean side. Bathrooms and showers, undamaged by the storm, also got a makeover. And in the fall, an overnight camping program that annually attracts about 600 sixth-graders, will resume.
We heard loud and clear from visitors who love the park, When is Elliott reopening? Its clear that Elliott is well-loved, said Christiana Admiral, who oversees services for the parks visitors.
At 7.6 miles long, Elliott Key is Biscayne National Parks longest island, one of only three out of 42 islands in the park with bathrooms, campgrounds and other amenities for visitors.
Biscayne National Park is the nations largest marine park at 172,000 acres, but 95 percent of it is covered by water. So when Elliott Key was forced to close, it removed a critical facility, used both for recreation and shelter during storms.
Rangers tried briefly to reopen it, but damage was too severe.
People were really upset when we closed the island. I dont think they understood the extent of the structural damage, Admiral said.
Steve Newman, the islands supervisor for the last 17 years, remembered arriving after the storm to find ankle-deep water stretching from the dock to the islands bathrooms and showers, piers ripped away and the seawall cracked. On the ocean side, an 1100- foot boardwalk was scattered in pieces.
The concrete actually fell down and the dock went down with it. Sandy was actually picking the docks up with the wave action, he said.
Elliott Key sits about halfway between the coast and the parks eastern edge. In the 1800s, settlers arrived and planted pineapples, collecting freshwater from springs that bubbled up from the bay bottom and subsidizing their existence by sponging and fishing the pristine waters that surrounded the island, Admiral said.
By the 1900s, nearly 100 people inhabited it, with a one-room school and general store. By 1960, the number had dropped to just a handful, but a determined handful. One night in December 1960, 13 voted to create a municipality, incorporating 33 Biscayne Bay islands and calling it Islandia. Despite opposition from anglers and environmentalists, the townsfolk insisted that what South Florida needed was a causeway linking Key Biscayne to Key Largo.
In 1968, when Islandias mayor and the city council got a bulldozer to clear a 125-foot wide path through the center of the island, the move so infuriated critics that it helped lead to the bays designation as a national park in 1968.
Today, the six-lane highway that came to be called Spite Highway is barely a trail, overgrown with grass and shaded by pigeon plum, knicker bean trees and gumbo limbos.
In addition to repairing damage from the storm, the park included features in the piers to deal with rising sea level, Admiral said. The harbors 33 finger piers with 36 slips are no longer attached to the seawall, but are freestanding and covered with fiberglass mesh rather than planks. That allows water to flow more freely around and over them.
The park also installed a new dock for kayaks and other small boats.
Late Thursday afternoon, despite stormy skies, a boat bearing visitors, possibly the first, arrived.
This is what we usually do, said Miguel Noy, 21, who had motored his 26-foot boat carrying his two siblings and a friend to the island.
He was surprised to learn he might be among the first visitors to the reopened island, he said. We knew it had been closed but we didnt know this was the first day.