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Major flooding shuts down Zoo Miami

The usually dry moat around the elephant exhibit is full of water as Zoo Miami closes on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, to cope with major flooding.
The usually dry moat around the elephant exhibit is full of water as Zoo Miami closes on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, to cope with major flooding. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

One of South Florida’s biggest attractions has been shut down for three days after heavy rain left several of Zoo Miami’s main exhibits underwater and lion moats compromised.

Ron Magill, the zoo’s communication director, said the attraction has been closed since 11 a.m. Saturday when the pathways and walkways to major exhibits became inundated with water. It remained closed Monday, and Tuesday’s prospects for opening are uncertain.

“I have never, in my 36 years here, seen anything like this in December,” Magill said. “The rain just won’t give up.”

He said a decision about reopening Tuesday has not yet been made. More rain is in the forecast.

“There is no way we can reopen until the water begins to recede,” he said.

The zoo, which sits on 700 acres off Southwest 152nd Street and 124th Avenue in Southwest Miami-Dade, is home to more than 3,000 animals. Most are safe from the flooding because holding areas away from exhibits are elevated.

But the human areas? That’s another story.

Magill said pathways and walkways to exhibits including Amazon and Beyond are completely underwater, making it unsafe for visitors, and even some animals. He said the water is so high that fish from a nearby lake are swimming under benches and near trees.

Animals including the lions are kept in a areas separated by moats. When the water table is down, the barrier works, Magill said.

But when the water level rises, a lion can potentially swim across the moat and climb the wall.

“With a high water level, there is no longer a barrier,” he said. “In reality, most animals can swim.”

But he is concerned about the primates, including the chimpanzees, because they can’t swim. Their enclosure has a catch net in case of a fall, but the rainwater is a few feet above the net, making drowning a possibility.

“It is just a bad situation right now,” he said.

The shutdown has hurt the zoo financially during its peak season. Magill estimates the attraction has lost 6,000 to 10,000 visitors the past few days. The zoo was last closed for flooding 10 years ago during Hurricane Wilma.

The possibility of further flooding and continued closure depend on the rain.

Steven Ippoliti, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said the flood warning in Miami-Dade was called off. There are chances of showers overnight, but he expects them to be moderate to heavy.

“As of this time we don't foresee anything heavy enough for that,” he said.

Ippoliti said he expects the county to dry out by late Wednesday or Thursday. The chance of rain for Tuesday is 70 percent.

At nearby Miami Executive Airport, formally Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport, more than 13 inches of rain has fallen since Dec. 1, the wettest since the weather service began tracking there in 1998, Ross said.

Six softball fields were closed at Tropical Park and one at Ives Estates Park, said Laura Phillips, spokesperson for Miami-Dade County parks recreation and open spaces department. Palmetto Golf and Briar Bay Golf were closed. Parking lots were flooded at Miami-Dade County marinas, as were the fields at Tamiami Park.

Phillips said everything is expected to open tomorrow.

The heavy rain has also caused flooding in other communities. On Saturday, several streets in West Kendall were underwater, causing some cars to stall out, their drivers abandoning them along medians.

Homestead was forced to shut down several intersections. Police Maj. Scott Kennedy said the nonstop rain closed Southeast Eighth Street from South Homestead Boulevard to Southeast 18th Avenue and Southeast Sixth Avenue from Mowry Drive to Southeast Eighth Street.

Although the roads were reopened Monday, Kennedy said heavy rain may again detour traffic.

“The roads are already saturated,” he said. “The ground can’t take much more of this.”

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