Jan. 13--It's been 28 months since Hurricane Irma damaged Matheson Hammock Park with 80 mph gusts and a storm surge of 4.3 feet. Miami's 630-acre oasis on the bay still hasn't recovered.

The atoll walkway ringing the saltwater lagoon that offers beautiful views of sea and skyline is crumbling and blocked by orange netting and trash barrels. The swimming beach has eroded. The mud-caked roadway to the scenic south end and wading beach is closed.

Segments of the mile-long pedestrian path from the entrance on Old Cutler Road through the mangroves to Biscayne Bay are flooded or covered with black goo and seaweed, and plastic debris has washed up on the roots. The main parking lot turns into a shallow pond during king tides and rainy season, and the pavement is being eaten away at the edges.

Matheson Hammock is a gem, a natural haven that should have vanished under McMansions but has been preserved as Miami-Dade County's first park since 1930. One of few bayfront parks accessible to the public, it looks scruffy and forgotten. Locals who frequent the park are peeved. Tourists are puzzled.

"A unique place, so gorgeous, and close to the city," said Maurice Lavin, on vacation from France. "I think it could look better, no?"

Susan Gerrish, a longtime resident who enjoys walking and picnicking in the park at 9610 Old Cutler Road, just north of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, echoes complaints that it was neglected long before Irma hit on Sept. 10, 2017, deterring visitors.

"What a treasure we have here but it is not kept up or cleaned up," she said, pointing to trash draped on a thicket of mangroves. "When the mangrove path is underwater, which is 90 percent of the time, you have to walk or bike on the entrance road. That isn't safe and it defeats the whole idea of walking through one of our surviving mangrove forests, which is shaded and filled with wildlife.

"We haven't been able to use the lagoon walkway for years. It's a shame how our tax dollars are wasted."

The county will begin implementing a sea rise mitigation plan this year after a slow process of studying problems at the park and obtaining approval from local, state and federal agencies.

The park was founded when W.J. Matheson donated some 80 acres on the west side of Cutler Road to the county 90 years ago, attaching four deed restrictions to that section: A person must live on site; the park must be free to the public; the land must be maintained as a botanical park (not converted to an amusement park), and if it burned down, it would revert back to the Matheson family.

The county acquired more land on the east side, and with assistance from the Civilian Conservation Corps, built coral rock buildings and a bathhouse, dredged a channel, constructed a marina and created the man-made atoll and pool, which is flushed through culverts by the tidal action of Biscayne Bay.

The park is popular with boaters, kitesurfers, kayakers, families with small children, walkers, runners and anyone seeking urban green and blue space.

Bruce Matheson, great-grandson of W.J. Matheson and steward of his family's environmental gifts, recalled swimming in the pool as a kid with his siblings. He laments the current state of the park.

"I am concerned because the county needs to maintain the integrity of the park for future generations," he said. "Unfortunately, the park has suffered from demolition by neglect. I don't think that is the county's intent but Matheson Hammock needs to be higher on their list of priorities."

Red Fish Grill was wrecked by Irma but under new lease holder Rodney Barreto it is being refurbished and projected to reopen as early as next month. The kitchen will be run by Chef Adrianne Calvo, known for her food truck and restaurants Cracked in South Miami and the Vineyard Restaurant and Wine Bar in West Kendall. Barreto has already redone the supply store at the marina's fuel depot, adding to the menu and merchandise and improving the bathrooms.

"We had to gut the Red Fish Grill and it's been a long and eye-opening process dealing with a historic building on land owned by the county and regulated by the city of Coral Gables," said Barreto, Miami businessman and chair of the current and past two Miami Super Bowl host committees.

"It's going to be something totally different under the same name. We'll have an oyster bar inside. We'll cook with farm-to-table foods from South Dade. We'll have a small outdoor bar. We want to activate the rooftop, which is fully approved for use."

Barreto lives nearby and does morning five-mile walks through the park. He's optimistic the new, fortified restaurant will be able to withstand hurricanes, king tides and sea rise.

"I'm excited because it's a trophy property unlike any other," he said. "The setting is incredible. My brother got married there. People are always calling to schedule weddings and events. It's popular for photo shoots.

"When we have king tides, there's not much we can do until the shoreline is better protected. During hurricane season we'll keep our fingers crossed."

Keeping Matheson Hammock above water through the 21st century will require a commitment to coastal engineering and a general lifting of the park, according to a 2018 report to the county by consultant Cummins Cederberg. The county's plan to adapt to projected sea rise in phases starts with improvements to the lagoon and its surrounding walkway, to be finished by fall of this year.

The "atoll walkway provides a unique experience and connection to Biscayne Bay" and will be raised 3 1/2 feet, with its sloping sides stabilized with large rocks, the report says. The lagoon beach, drowned during king tides, will be renourished with additional sand and a berm.

Solving chronic flooding of the mangrove path will require building a 3.5-foot-high elevated boardwalk with railings through the forest. The main parking lot, covered with 2.1 feet of water during the peak king tide of 2015, needs to be raised two to three feet, with a resilient shoreline built up around it as a buffer. Marina parking lot 3, at the dock master's office, should be raised and protected by a new sea wall.

The boat ramp parking lot and docks similarly need to be raised and the docks should be replaced by floating docks in 2030. The low-lying, oft-swamped south access road, picnic area and wading beach are in "poor condition" and sea rise represents an "imminent hazard to this area," the report states. It recommends raising the level of the pavement or building a boardwalk.

Cost estimates for projects to be completed in the next five years range up to $19 million, and less urgent measures would cost the county another $36 million by 2040, when nearly 80 percent of the park could be inundated in the event of an extreme high tide.

If no mitigation is done to help the park survive a wetter future, "portions or all of the park will likely be unusable during large portions of the year within the next 20 years," and by 2050, "the majority of the park would be flooded frequently on a daily basis." In 2100, with five feet of sea rise forecast, "the entire park would be flooded the majority of the time," the report states.

Restoring Matheson Hammock is a "priority project" for the county, according to a statement from the Miami-Dade parks department:

"But we must emphasize that this is a very sensitive area that requires permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Environmental Protection and the Division of Environmental and Resource Management. We are developing a long-term irrigation plan that requires thorough due diligence and close coordination with multiple local and federal agencies. Our intention is that Matheson Hammock Park will be a heritage park that residents and visitors can enjoy for generations."

Linda Robertson has written about a variety of compelling subjects during an award-winning career. As a sports columnist she covered 13 Olympics, Final Fours, World Cups, Wimbledon, Heat and Hurricanes, Super Bowls, Soul Bowls, Cuban defectors, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lance Armstrong, Tonya Harding. She golfed with Donald Trump, fished with Jimmy Johnson, learned a magic trick from Muhammad Ali and partnered with Venus Williams to defeat Serena. She now chronicles our love-hate relationship with Miami, where she grew up.

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