Ian SimpKins: disaster and recovery in vizcaya’s gardens

Vizcaya’s Horticulture Director, Ian Simpkins recounts his Hurricane Irma experience and gives us insight on his personal journey.


Ian Simpkins (Timestamp: 00:03):

I grew up in horticulture and with plants and was really kind of a calling for me. I started in landscape architecture and got a job at what was then the NC State Arboretum. It’s now The JC Raulston Arboretum and totally fell in love with it. So I switched to ornamental horticulture, ended up graduating in that. I ended up here in Miami in 2007, and I’ve been here ever since. The role model I have that means the most to me to this day in horticulture is the late JC Raulston. He was the director of the NC State Arboretum. He really inspired me to become a part of this field. He was also a personal role model to me because I got this job at the same time that I came out as gay and he was gay. For me to be at the right place in time to be taken under his wing, I consider myself extremely fortunate.


The most impactful disaster of my horticulture career was with Hurricane Irma. My most stressful and most poignant memory of that whole period was walking through the gardens before the storm was to hit, and realizing that within a day and a half, 10 years of my work would be blown apart. Knowing that the storm had turned, and we did not get the full impact was relieving, but it was still really difficult to come into the gardens and see what had happened. The first couple of days, it was all hands on deck. And the timing of Irma was especially unfortunate because we were in the midst of transitioning from county operations to private operations, and most of our horticulture staff had already left. We really had to scramble, and we worked really heavily with our publicity and social media crew to get the word out that we needed volunteers. We were astounded by the number of volunteers that we got. We were getting over a hundred every day, so with that, we were able to get the gardens at least presentable when we opened a month later.


The future for public horticulture is going to be challenging, and we have the specter of climate change, and it’s happening at a scale in severity that no one really expected to have happen at this point in time. For coastal gardens, there’s the threat of sea level rise and there is the ever-increasing threat of hurricanes. Gardens need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario to ensure that they are ready. If anything good were to come out of Irma, it kind of coalesced the public garden industry around the importance of disaster planning and disaster response. I’m proud to say the American Public Gardens Association leaned on us heavily in those very early days to help inform the discussion and inform the plans, and now it’s actually a critical component of public horticulture operations nationwide.


Seeing the response that we got from the public who, in droves, were willing to come out and get dirty and nasty and help us recover, that was really encouraging and really supporting for me in the period after Hurricane Irma, because it showed that people cares and that we in the gardens matter to people. It matters to people because it provides beauty in their lives. It provides a connection, and it is a place where people can be immersed and be transported somewhere else.