MIAMI - In the beginning, there was the great flood. Not the one in Genesis that cleansed the world of evil, but the rising waters that swamped the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina.
As survivors and aid workers coped with the death and devastation, animals struggled, too. They foraged for food and wandered in search of a home.
Those images touched something deep inside Rodolfo Almira. He dreamed of creating a refuge for animals facing catastrophe. Then it came to him:
"Wouldn't it be nice to do what Noah did?"
And why not right here on the rugged western frontier of Miami-Dade?
It could be a draw for tourists, a haven for God's creatures, a testament to his faith and a place for reflection and learning.
So it came to pass that Almira and three other Hialeah men began building an ark just west of town, doing it from a biblical template, converting cubits - roughly the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger - into modern measurements.
It rises on a five-acre plot surrounded by lakes that got their start as rock quarries, a moonscape where work boots quickly get caked with dust kicked up by the trucks that constitute most of the local traffic.
Six months into their quest, the lowest deck of the three-story wooden ark is nearly complete. Planks of wood jut out near the bow and stern. Wooden beams crisscross overhead. A donated, life-size elephant statue stands sentry in front of the ark.
Unlike, say, biblical times, you need permits and zoning approval to build such a thing. Code enforcement has dinged them with some violation notices.
Almira and his friends remain undeterred, committed to finishing the 500-foot-long structure, dubbed "Hidden Ark."
High on zeal and short on cash, they estimate it will cost $1.5 million to finish the ambitious project, which they say will include a museum, a shop and a small zoo with goats, pigs, chickens and other small animals, as well as stray dogs and cats.
Almira, who makes his living installing natural stone in homes and businesses, first approached Reniel Aguila with the idea. Aguila, a truck driver, then pitched it to his friends Manuel Guerra and Osmar Oliva. Oliva, owner of a trucking company, didn't need much convincing before donating $300,000 to start putting hammer to nail.
Despite no formal engineering training, Aguila drew up rough plans based on the instructions God gave to Noah in the Bible.
The men tried to raise money through an Internet-based fundraising campaign, but that hasn't gone particularly well. Earlier this month, they'd snagged $644.
The four have crossed paths over the years through their work, but were never especially close until the ark project gave them common cause. Their families have been supportive.
"They told me to follow my dream," Almira said.
The story of Noah's Ark has gripped the imagination of many over the years.
Former astronaut James Irwin, who once walked on the moon, made several expeditions to Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey hoping to find remains of the vessel, before leaving the search to others.
A Dutch man finished his own life-size ark last summer after having a dream 20 years earlier in which the Netherlands was flooded by the North Sea. The ark currently serves as a Bible-themed museum.
A Kentucky-based creationist group named Answers in Genesis has raised almost half of the estimated $24.5 million it will take to build an ark as the first phase of Ark Encounter, an attraction that would eventually feature a 510-foot long ark, a petting zoo and a replica of the Tower of Babel.
Almira sees his ark as a place where people of all faiths could pray or meditate, a space where animals could interact with guests, and an after-school program.
"It has nothing to do with any specific religion," he said.
Aguila speaks fervently about the ark as a symbol of humankind's salvation.
"It would be our dream to have the pope come to our inauguration," he said, standing in the shadow of Luyano, the elephant statue they named after a Havana neighborhood. In a way, Luyano is the ark's first animal rescue. It was donated by a local man who ran afoul of neighbors and Miami-Dade County officials by displaying the pachyderm in his front yard.
The ark builders have their own problems with bureaucratic authorities. The county has cited the ark builders for working without permits. Structures on the property include the ark, a wooden shed serving as an office and a metal storage container.
Aguila said they've appealed three $500 citations, but will pay if necessary. He said they intend to follow the law and meet all requirements.
"We just didn't know," he said. "We started building without knowing what we needed to do."
The group has since consulted with Doral-based architectural design firm Building Permits Miami.
"I gave them advice because they had violations," said architect Darly Leon, who thinks the permitting process could take six months to a year and construction could take up to two years.
The ark builders cannot be accused of thinking small. They are contemplating expanding beyond the current five acres, either by purchasing adjacent land or moving to a larger lot somewhere nearby. That would mean disassembling the existing hull, moving the lumber and rebuilding.
The four remain optimistic about their vision, which includes setting up cameras to allow Web-streaming from the ark.
Access to the stream would be available through a Hidden Ark membership, which was available for a brief time on the website www.hiddenark.com for $3.99 a month. (Told that raises still more zoning issues, they decided to no longer offer memberships. For now.)
Ultimately, Aguila envisions having people from across the globe join Hidden Ark, of assembling a membership roll so large that it would keep admission to the ark free and still cover the cost of the operation, including an on-site veterinarian and a restaurant.
"This isn't just for the community," he said. "It's for the entire world."
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