Burmese python invasion in Florida a hidden legacy of Hurricane Andrew

It's been 26 years since Hurricane Andrew became the costliest storm in Florida's history, but today residents of the Sunshine State are still paying the price in a way few would have imagined. Captive Burmese pythons let loose by Andrew's destruction have flourished in the southern Florida ecosystem, decimating local species in the process. And now there are signs this stubbornly invasive species may be poised to make its way beyond the state's borders.

Florida's current python problem had its genesis about a decade before Andrew hit. Pet owners and exotic animals exhibitors in the U.S. had started importing the Southeast Asian Burmese python — among the top 5 largest snake species — for their size and novelty in this part of the world. However, caring for what can grow to be a 15- to 20-foot-long, 200-pound predator can become overwhelming and dangerous. Floridians who found themselves incapable of caring for their pythons relieved themselves of that burden by releasing the snakes into Florida's Everglades, the largest wilderness area in the eastern U.S. 

At 734 square miles, Everglades National Park is almost two-thirds the size of Rhode Island and filled with an abundance of wildlife. According to the National Park Service, it's the most significant breeding ground for wading birds in North America. The Burmese python was first sighted in the Everglades in the 1980's, but that turned out to be the calm before the storm.

On August 23, 1992 Andrew made landfall south of Miami as a Category 5 hurricane, one of the most powerful ever to hit the United States. Sustained winds whipped at upwards of 150 miles per hour, more than enough to rip roofs off homes and demolish buildings, including a number of exotic wildlife facilities in the area. One of the buildings affected was a breeding facility for Burmese pythons, and many of them escaped. 

"Thousands of specimens of exotics [sic] species escaped their caging and enclosures during the passing of the storm through south Dade County," state environmental inspectors reported 10 days after the hurricane. "Witnesses spotted hundreds of large snakes and non-venomous snakes loose."

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