As Hurricane Ian hit southwest Florida on Wednesday, images of devastation dominated television news reports and social media streams. But one image, taken from a St. Petersburg botanical garden, was striking for a different reason.
The birds were schlepped into the bathroom because Ian, forecast to become a major storm, was expected to cause catastrophic damage in the Tampa Bay area surrounding Sunken Gardens, which is home to a variety of birds and other animals.
“The flamingos are having quite the hurricane party; eating, drinking, and dancing,” a post on the botanical garden’s Instagram page said.
The storm instead hit hardest farther south, making landfall as a Category 4 hurricane and bringing 150 mph winds, storm surges and major destruction. As of early Friday, over 2.1 million Florida customers remained without power.
The photo of the flamingos bunched together in the bathroom spread widely on social media and perhaps served to lighten the mood amid an otherwise bleak crush of bad news. It was also reminiscent of another, now iconic photo taken decades earlier during a devastating hurricane.
Before Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, pummeled South Florida in 1992, a zoologist at what was then Metrozoo (now Zoo Miami) snapped a photo of dozens of pink flamingos huddled in a bathroom between stalls and sinks — an image that ended up going viral in its own way in the pages of newspapers. The storm was considered directly responsible for the deaths of 23 people and caused an estimated $26 billion in damage in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The National Weather Service still considers Andrew one of the most powerful hurricanes to strike the United States. Ian is also now considered to rank among the most powerful.
Ron Magill, the Metrozoo photographer and now the communications director at Zoo Miami, told The Washington Post that before Andrew struck in August 1992, animal keepers had come up with a plan to protect the flamingos from devastating storms.
“Unfortunately, they didn’t have, at that time, their own specific building that was made to protect them,” he said. “So we had to be innovative.”
Of the countless images I have captured in my life, none is more iconic than this one. I can't believe it has been 30 years since Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida. I'll never forget capturing this image of the zoos flamingos huddled in the ladies restroom for protection. pic.twitter.com/iACXIBivSm— Ron Magill (@RonMagill) August 24, 2022
The zoo’s restrooms were ideal for large birds like flamingos. They served as “perfect bunkers” that were easy to clean, Magill said. Staffers placed hay on the floor, gave the birds food and water, and moved them in a day before Andrew made landfall.
As McGill was about to lock up the bathroom the evening before the storm struck, he glanced at the birds, huddled together and looking at themselves in the mirrors above the sinks — a surreal image that he had to capture with his camera.
The next day, the hurricane barreled into South Florida, with the zoo at “ground zero,” Magill said. It looked like “a 25-mile-wide weed whacker came through.”
Five mammals and nearly 100 birds died, and the zoo required major repairs, Magill said. But the flamingos survived. “And we realized that had we not put those flamingos in the bathroom, they would have certainly all died,” Magill said.
As news outlets covered the storm’s aftermath, Magill’s photo of the bathroom flamingos eventually got picked up by a major wire service. “Then all of a sudden, it just was everywhere,” Magill said.
“I think people at that time really enjoyed that photograph because it was a positive aspect where everybody was talking about the destruction and the chaos and the looting and the bad things that were happening,” he added.
To this day, he still sees the photo during anniversaries of the hurricane. Its 30th came in August. The photo has also been replicated during other major storms, like a snapshot of flamingos in a bathroom at Zoo Miami during 1999’s Hurricane Floyd.
And as for the flamingos at Sunken Gardens?
“They’re doing great,” Dwayne Biggs, the botanical garden’s supervising director, told the Miami Herald on Thursday. “The public restrooms were perfect.”
Seeing those flamingos safely sheltering in the bathroom this week brought a huge smile to Magill’s face, he told The Post, adding, “I would like to believe that was something that they learned from us.”