Central Florida Zoo reopens after four-week closure due to Hurricane Ian

Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens Entrance Sign – Courtesy: Shutterstock – Image by KLiK Photography

Long after Hurricane Ian made landfall in the Sunshine State, the devastating storm that drenched the Central Florida region left its mark on one beloved attraction. 

The Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Sanford, Florida finally managed to reopen to the public after damage and flooding to the property stopped the attraction from opening to guests for four weeks.

About half of the zoo was flooded, but the main issue resulted from the zoo’s main access road being submerged beneath two feet of water for over two weeks.

“Our zoo director, Stephanie Williams, has been here for 23 years and she’s never seen the entire road flooded in that entire time,” said Richard Glover, the zoo’s CEO. “Yet, we had two feet of water over it. It’s absolutely unprecedented.”

Glover, who has served as the organization’s CEO for the last six months, has experienced the effects of hurricanes in Texas and Florida. He expressed his thankfulness that animals and employees stayed safe while praising the zoo staff’s efforts despite hurricane-related struggles.

“For the staff that’s been here, it’s been especially difficult. They’ve had to be very creative with ways to get in and take care of things that normally are easy to do, that are much harder now,” he said. “They’ve kept their spirits up and they’ve done a great job, but it has definitely been a challenge.”

During the catastrophic storm, a small group of staff and zookeepers remained on-site to watch over the animals. During the evening when Ian tore through several Florida cities, they awoke to approximately three inches of water on the ground in the building where they sought shelter.

The worst of the water damage didn’t come until several days after the hurricane left the area, a consequence of Lake Monroe and St. Johns River’s rising waters. In recent days, a larger crew of 25 to 30 repair workers and staff has been reporting to the enclosure daily, crossing the SunRail tracks twice daily under county supervision.

While the zoo is open to the public and set to host its Zoo Boo Bash this weekend, it could take some time to recuperate from the financial downfall that resulted from property damages and a monthlong closure.

“We expect damages themselves to be between $300,000-$400,000. Each day that we’re closed, it’s over $17,000 in fixed expenses that we have to spend to take care of animals, pay the staff and keep utilities going,” Glover said. “We’re going to see an overall financial hit probably between $800,000-$1 million.”

Surprisingly, even the Naples Zoo, which stood in the direct path of Hurricane Ian, was able to reopen much sooner than the Central Florida Zoo. Glover, however, has experienced immense support from the community and other Florida zoos alike.

This Friday, Oct. 28, Wekiva Island in Longwood will host a benefit and fundraiser night from 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Ten percent of all sales will benefit the zoo, as well as 100 percent of proceeds from a silent auction and raffle.

Glover said that as the zoo works diligently to recover from the hurricane, he is considering ways that the attraction can be better prepared for future weather emergencies.

“There are questions about what we do to avoid this during future storms because they’re coming here more frequently and they’re stronger,” he said. “Hopefully we can find some ways to mitigate so if we have this kind of flooding again, it doesn’t put us in the same position.”

To learn more, visit centralfloridazoo.org or wekivaisland.com.

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