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Hurricane Heroes: Jonathan Crane

Jonathan Crane in the mango groves at UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, FL.

Jonathan Crane is all about multi-tasking and promoting resilience in agriculture. He serves as the tropical fruit crop specialist and associate director at UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) in Homestead, FL.

He is also the chair of TREC’s Disaster Committee. As a UF/IFAS faculty member for almost 34 years, Crane has been at the center of several tropical storms, including Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which caused devastation to Dade County’s residential and agriculture communities.

 

You wear several hats at UF/IFAS, tell us about your diverse roles.  

My days and weeks are divided, performing a variety of functions as the tropical fruit crop specialist, associate director at TREC and chair of the Disaster Committee.

As tropical fruit specialist, my appointment is primarily dedicated to Extension at UF/IFAS. My assignment is about 70 percent Extension, 20 percent research, 5 percent teaching, 5 percent administration – but it varies from this breakout.

In my role, I plan, execute, collaborate and evaluate extension programs as part of the Florida Extension Road Map 2013-2023 that address a variety of issues that promote:

  • Awareness and appreciation of food systems and the environment.
  • Resource sustainability and conservation in Florida communities.
  • Financial security for individuals, businesses, enterprises and communities.

I also collaborate with a variety of teams. They include UF/IFAS Extension specialists, agents and other institutional and regulatory agency staff who offer informational and transformative Extension programs. Areas of research include control and mitigation of laurel wilt and the ambrosia beetles; lychee erinose mite control and mitigation; dragon fruit disease, insect control and mitigation and production practices, just to name a few. I also provide training for the UF/IFAS Master Gardener Volunteer Program, along with other in-service trainings, and serve as a guest lecture. I am an author and co-author on about 120 Extension publications. I’ve also authored and co-authored 11 to 15 of the most viewed EDIS publications during the 2016-2020 period.

I have been the associate director of TREC since 2010. My role has been to take leadership on day-to-day TREC grove management and special field projects that include developing, assessing and overseeing new field irrigation infrastructure for vegetable crops.

As chair of the disaster committee (since about 2007) I lead our committee’s continued development and review of TREC’s plans to prepare for and recover from natural disasters including flooding and hurricanes.  

 

What are some of the tropical storms and hurricanes that you have dealt with in your work over the years?

Hurricane Irma, 2017 – caused significant crop loss in the agricultural area (fruits, vegetables, ornamentals). It caused a 40 percent reduction in avocado production the following year and a 60 percent reduction the year after that.

As I look back, in 2004, Tropical Storm Gordon caused flooding throughout the agricultural area of Homestead. There were four hurricanes in 2005: Dennis (July 2005), Katrina (August 2005), Rita (September 2005) and Wilma (October 2005). I was out of the country for the first three but was at TREC for Hurricane Wilma. That hurricane caused significant destruction of wind-screen structures surrounding carambola groves and there was some tree toppling in all groves. We spent about four months rehabilitating grove trees and some field infrastructure.

Hurricane Andrew, August 24, 1992, was a Category 5. I recall it as the most devastating hurricane the South Miami-Homestead area had recorded. The eye of the storm went through Homestead/Florida City.

Then there was Category 1 Hurricane Irene in 1999.

 

Describe your experience with the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew.

It was a devastating hurricane. It caused human casualties while flattening the entire landscape of vegetation and trees and destroying about 25,000 thousand homes and businesses. It damaged all types of buildings.

The agricultural area was stripped of almost all green vegetation, as groves were destroyed and/or heavily damaged. Packinghouses were also destroyed or heavily damaged. Vegetable planting was about to begin and so their fields (amounting to roughly 30,000 acres) had been prepared for planting. This loosened the rocks in our rock-land, rock-plowed, and rock-based soils, and allowed them to become airborne during the hurricane. This caused a massive impact that stoned and dented buildings and vehicles and stripped the bark from trees.

Fruit trees were mostly destroyed, depending on the fruit species and tree size. TREC sustained severe damage in that all but one building had a substantial roof and flood damage in offices in labs. Several aluminum buildings and grading sheds were blown away. All greenhouses and shade houses on the campus were destroyed, along with all of the farm equipment. Groves containing guava and avocado trees were toppled, while others including carambola, mango collections, and miscellaneous fruit collections were nearly destroyed.

Fortunately, no staff or faculty were killed, but their homes ranged in damage from slight to needing to be rebuilt. The UF/IFAS and departmental responses from main campus were swift, substantial and greatly appreciated. Tractor-trailer loads of food, household supplies, water, generators, and first aid arrived within days of the storm. Staff and faculty took on leadership roles. We organized and manned a makeshift distribution center at TREC for the supplies shipped to TREC. The director at the time, Dr. Richard Baranowski, offered the U.S. Army 10th-Mountain Army Division a place to set up a basecamp at TREC, and in exchange, they assisted with cleanup, security and assisted me in the rehabilitation effort of thousands of fruit trees at TREC. This grove rehab effort lasted about six months. Then there was the repair and replacement of the large aluminum buildings, greenhouses and shade houses.

From this experience, we documented the effect of hurricane damage to fruit trees based on species, tree age, and pruning practices and their recovery. This led to several publications including two EDIS documents: “Preparing for and recovering from hurricane and tropical storm damage to tropical fruit groves in Florida” and “Preparation for and recovery from hurricanes and windstorms for tropical fruit trees in the South Florida homes landscape”.

 

For Hurricane Andrew, what were your responsibilities?  

I had only experienced Hurricane Donna (1960) in New Jersey. It carried lots of intense rainfall, roughly eight to 10 inches, within a 24-hour period. So, while I’d read about hurricanes, I had not experienced one prior to Andrew.

For hurricane Andrew, like most faculty, our responsibility was to remove equipment and moveable plant material to safe areas like inside buildings and away from windows. We helped secure buildings and directed the field crew to lower irrigation risers in the groves of TREC. Mostly, people were allowed to work from home to prepare their homes as best they could – and just wait.

It was after the storm, where my responsibilities included assisting with securing labs and offices, assisting in cleanup and field and equipment assessments and leading the rehab of groves kicked in. My main responsibility was to try and rehabilitate and save the trees in what amounted to 30 acres of groves at that time at TREC.

What is something you will always remember about your experience with Hurricane Andrew? 

I’ll always remember Hurricane Andrew for the devastation to all infrastructure, all landscape – groves especially and homes and businesses. We had no electricity to speak of for three months. Many of our homes needed to basically be rebuilt. There were no doors or windows left. There was significant roof damage. In some cases, it took two-to-three years to rebuild homes.

TREC took probably four to five years to repair. A new 5-acre carambola grove bought and paid for by the carambola growers was destroyed, all our grove experiments on limes, mangos, guava, carambola, and avocado were lost. The psychological trauma to the industry was significant. I remember it took about seven years before people, including myself, to stop referring to everything as before Andrew or after Andrew.

The experience of Andrew clearly revealed to me the need for an Extension effort for the tropical fruit industry to plan for and how to recover from a hurricane or a significant storm.

We learned a tremendous amount about how numerous tropical fruit tree species reacted to a category-5 hurricane. There are differences among species in survival, toppling, wind-throw, major limb and trunk damage, rehabilitation and re-setting. We gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about whether to and when the resumption of fruit production should take place. Since then, I have co-authored several EDIS and several journal articles. I have organized and participated as a speaker on hurricane preparedness workshops and seminars for nearly every year since Andrew.  Whether we have an in-person meeting or not, I send our EDIS documents to warn growers to prepare now.

For the past 20-25 years, I’ve been a TREC disaster committee member or chair of the committee. I along with the committee members review and revise our TREC Disaster Plan each year, mostly in preparation for hurricanes and tropical storms. We provide this written plan, plus other materials to all staff and students at TREC each year, hold a seminar which is mandatory for students especially.