The Florida Keys, six months after Irma.
Have you ever seen a thatched roof with a blue tarp on it?
In Marathon, roughly halfway down the Keys, The Wreck Galley and Grill always make for a nice stop. Peacocks meander near the porch and the menu’s diverse and reasonable enough that we know we can take any of our traveling friends there and they’ll have a good meal.
But now a blue tarp covers The Wreck’s thatched roof. It seems ridiculous, that six months after a hurricane there’d be anything in the contiguous United States still in need of repairs, but this restaurant is proof. Of course, that’s not the whole story, because The Wreck is open for business (and thriving, it appears). A roadside “OPEN” flag underscores that fact, and another sign — painted on the building and pre-dating the flag, the blue tarp or Hurricane Irma — urges, simply:
Don’t give up the ship.
That’s the motto throughout the Florida Keys.
The first time I saw the Keys, they changed my life. On a college class trip, our oversized van navigated through tangled mangroves, spitting us out on Snake Creek. Beneath us was the greenest water I had ever seen.
Something happened to me that day; the lure of this island chain and its teal waters call me back every year. I love my home, but I never feel more myself than when I immerse myself in the Keys’ warm subtropical waters or sit on a dock watching the sunset over Florida Bay. I’ve described returning to the Keys as “coming home without knowing I had been away.”
During an ill-advised marriage, I didn’t see the Florida Keys once in 10 years because my future ex-husband hated the heat, water and smallness. One of the first things I did after I left my husband? Took an impromptu solo trip south to my island paradise, where I found 20-year-old me waiting, and just like that, the person I’d been playing at being for a decade disappeared and my world righted itself. I promised myself I would never miss a year again.
And I’ve kept that promise, returning every year in May, up until last year. Last May, my future mother-in-law had health issues which kept us occupied from May through September. It’s OK, my fiancé told me, we can go there after we get married in October.
But then Irma happened, and by October most of the Keys weren’t really back to business as usual. Our favorite place, White Gate Court, had water damage and the nearby Islander hasn’t reopened at all yet.
After Irma came Maria, and with it, America turned its attention to Puerto Rico. Add to that the next two or 30 school shootings and the daily WTF from the White House, and most of America has forgotten the livelihoods of Conchs and Keys residents. I’ve stayed in touch with a few friends who are rebuilding their lives, but Facebook isn’t the same as being there. March 10 marks six months since the Category Four storm made landfall in the Florida Keys.
Today, we don’t stop at The Wreck to eat, but to photograph it. I’m on a mission — to see what the Florida Keys look like now. What’s open? How bad is it? And, most importantly: Does it still look like Paradise at the end of US 1, or will visitors see only trash piles lining the road?
The answer is complicated, but the news is, in essence, good news for fans of the Florida Keys: They’re open for business, even if it isn’t quite yet business as usual.
Before we get to the Keys, though, we stop to check out a few well-loved spots along the way: Everglades City an the Everglades itself.
The drive across the west/east route of the Tamiami Trail feels like a journey to another world. Signs marking this slough or that slough serve only to remind you yes, you’re in the swamp, you’ve been here for a while and you’re going to be here for a while longer. Between parts of the Everglades protected by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the National Park Service and Collier County, we simultaneously see someone pitch a plastic water bottle out of their car window and a “for sale” sign on a parcel of swamp. Literally, a developer has some swampland in Florida to sell you.
We head south on US 29 to see what remains of Everglades City and Chokoloskee. I’ve heard most of the area had nine feet of water surge over the land. The trees lining the highway into town don’t offer us much hope I’ve been lied to; buttonwood branches have twisted and snapped on almost every tree lining the west side of the road. In town, Irma’s devastation isn’t everywhere, but it’s ever-present. The Circle K — and by that I mean one of the two apparent gas stations in town — is still shuttered, with a roof in various stages of either repair or resurrection. Blue tarps seem semi-permanent on some homes.
But on US 41, the Everglades themselves seem untouched. We are fairly far inland along the road, but even still, the state of the swamp — more subtropical savannah here — drives home the point that hurricanes are part of nature and, like fire, they can move through the wilderness and leave it better, not worse. There’s more water on the south of US 41 than we usually see during the dry season (in parts of the Everglades, the driest time is the 30 days following the winter solstice, which means the “dry season” ended about a month ago). Everything here is abundantly green and the Everglades looks more alive than I’ve seen it in years.
At the Oasis visitor center in Big Cypress, a park ranger explains that Irma dumped an additional 30″ of rain in the Everglades, for a total of 70″ of rain in 2017. Unlike the periodic Lake O discharges — done at the whim of the developer/rancher/sugar-cane-grower-controlled water management district — that come with an influx of petrochemicals, nitrogen and phosphorous, the Everglades is historically conditioned to benefit from hurricane rains that recharge the web of ecosystems spanning from the big water of Lake O to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys.
That night in Islamorada, I’m heartened. The Islander remains closed, but its smaller sister resort, the Islander Bayside, is open and from our townhome balcony (this was absolutely more room than we needed for two nights, as it’s best suited to more than two people stretching out for a few days, but Islamorada’s down to just over half its hotel rooms operational, and we can’t afford — literally — to be fussy). We head over to talk to Craig McBay, who owns the Florida Keys Brewing Company with his wife.
McBay and his wife Cheryl started Florida Keys Brewing Company in 2015, three years ago last month — two-and-a-half-years before Irma swept across Islamorada. They opened the brewery — which uses key limes and local honey in its brews — in the burgeoning Morada Way’s Arts and Cultural District. It’s a refurbished bank of warehouses, at the end of which is a UPS depot. The road’s official name is Industrial Road; the District is in the process of changing it to something more representative of the artists who work there (think of it as the Warehouse Arts District, condensed to one street with more flora). The District — McBay is its leader — is working to make the area more pedestrian-friendly.
While the District works on that, McBay works on his new tasting room at the corner of the Overseas Highway and Industrial Drive. Initially, the McBays had a more ambitious timeline for the new tasting room, but Irma “changed our timeline,” he tells me.
He started construction on the new tasting room the week after Irma — the original location reopened as soon as they could access the business. He cites mangroves and fortune. Ten feet of mangrove reduces the surge by one foot, he tells us. They reopened to locals needing not only beer, but support from the community.
“The first few days after the storm, we were giving away beer,” he says. The beer stayed cold until Florida Keys Brewing Company got power back (he says it came back after five days), but tourists couldn’t access the Keys for two-three weeks.
“Everyone here relies on tourism,” he says. “Your locals can only do so much.”
Nevertheless, six months after Irma, “we’re still growing,” he says. They brewed an Irma Belgian, made with rainwater from the storm. They’re getting ready for the Mar. 18 Islamorada Seafood and Art Festival. Work on the new tasting room continues. The only hiccup? Contractors are in short supply. He doesn’t need storm repair and that’s what keeps most contractors going. His wife has created murals from bottlecaps from breweries from all over. The taps are ready. All he needs is the work to come to completion, and there are only so many contractors to go around.
The next morning, we head south to Robbies, wondering when we’ll start to see the much-talked-about trash piles. I meet with Cailin Reckwerdt, whom I instantly like because she’s wearing a sweater dress in 80º weather. There’s no doubt in my mind she’s a Florida girl, so when I learn her grandfather built Robbie’s of Islamorada, I’m not shocked.
Not much looks changed to me, and Reckwerdt explains that her family isn’t one to let the metaphorical seagrass grow under their feet.
“We just rebuilt pretty quick,” she tells me. “The storm was still at 10 MPH and we started cleaning.”
Two weeks after Irma flooded the marina, Robbie’s reopened.
“The deck we’re eating on is new,” she adds, explaining how the family made the decision to raise the level of the dock five feet.
“We had this chance to think about our future, [to decide],” she says, “’What do we do now?’”
The storm stripped the deck bare, so before they rebuilt, they fired more concrete and bolted down the deck a certain way so that, she says, “it’s not going anywhere.”
Reckwerdt has high praise for her community, especially the locals who came to work for Robbie’s right after the storm.
“They helped us; they worked really, really hard,” she says. “It was a good thing for us to come together. Obviously it was a big negative impact for the Keys, but we came out strong.”
“We were very fortunate compared to most right now,” she says. “What I see for us is we have our same staff, but a lot of the people who lived in trailers their homes are gone.”
In rebuilding, she says, Robbie’s “didn’t take any insurance money.” They also didn’t take any FEMA money — “Other people needed it more” — relying instead on the family’s hurricane fund. That’s fund’s pretty dry right now, but if the next few years are benevolent to the Keys, they can build it back up.
Next stop? White Gate Court. As we motor toward the end of Islamorada, I notice more and more fences blown over and not yet put right; more land cleared where you sort of assume, after two or 20 of such lots, ill-advised landscaping may have blown over and taken out a few things.
As we pull in the long drive to the resort I notice is a pile of rubble, but the cottages themselves remain. And — this is a bright spot, I think — many actually look better. We let the dogs out of the car (totally what you do here) and Calypso bounds towards the office, where Fred rushes out to greet her (I’d like to think it’s her animal magnetism, but in reality, it’s probably Fred’s little wiener talking). Jane, the manager, greets me warmly and shows me the property. Yes, she says, the cottages had damage, but they took the opportunity to upgrade and fix things, which is why they remained closed as long as they did (and, also, for a great deal of it, the Keys had unreliable internet and phone service).
Hurricanes are predictable, to a point. We can tell, thanks to the National Hurricane Center, where a hurricane might go and, as landfall becomes more imminent, forecasters can tell with some degree of accuracy whereabouts that landfall will be. But consider this: The equatorial circumference of the earth is almost 25,000 miles, so if the forecasters aren’t down to the mile marker, we have to forgive that. And, honestly, landfall anywhere near where you are won’t be a magical experience.
In a place like the Florida Keys, though, that margin of error means more than that. See, hurricanes spin counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere (the northeast side is worst side, called the dirty side, because that’s where all the wind and rain is, where you’ll see tornadoes, waterspouts and lightning), which means when Irma made landfall on the Florida Keys, on the southern/eastern side of the islands, that counter-clockwise rotation pushed a wall of water (locals estimate between 8-9 feet) and hurricane winds from the south and east across the islands. Remember, too, the forward momentum of the storm also increases the wind — the winds on the east side of the storm are the speed of the hurricane force winds plus the speed at which the storm is moving. So, if a storm moves at 10 mph and has sustained winds of, say, 100 mph, the “dirty” edge of the storm has 110 mph winds; the backside has 90 mph winds.
That was in advance of the eye of the storm, after which the game changed. But for the areas near landfall, this matters — bay side, OK. Atlantic side, not so much (that’s not to say there was no damage, only that the bay side fared far better).
So, landfall was around Mile Marker 20, but Irma was huge with a 30-mile-wide eye, and landfall at Cudjoe Key meant hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles from the eye, so it’s no shock to us to see damage still evident in Islamorada — fences not yet repaired, signs still not replaced. Signs dot the roadway: “We are open and ready to serve.”
At Long Key State Park, things are not as shipshape. I drove past the park the first time, because all we saw was water. Only when we saw the lone bathhouse — there used to be others — did we realize we were looking at the land formerly known as Long Key State Park.
The only thing that remains is the newest bathhouse. Campsites? Gone. Trees separating the campsites? Gone. Sand? Gone. There’s an office, and the park manager, Mark Duncan, comes out to speak to us.
“We’re basically starting from scratch,” he tells me. The piles of sand I see, waiting for redistribution? They “reclaimed” them from the sand washed into the road.
There’s a bright side, though — and I’m starting to notice that, in the Keys, you can be surrounded by destruction and people will tell you “there’s a bright side” — the park, built in 1969, badly needed an infrastructure upgrade. That lone bathhouse? It was built not quite 10 years ago, Duncan says. Newer building codes are why it survived.
Every year I love to see the Australian Pine on an abandoned stretch of the old Overseas Railroad come into view, but things as we grow closer don’t look good. The small outcropping of buildings at Pigeon Key halfway between Marathon and and Little Duck Key, have suffered the wrath of Irma. Pigeon Key isn’t closed — you can still visit via ferry — but the ramp leading down from the bridge to the island is not serviceable. The buildings are not… well, they’re not in the right place, exactly — they seem lower than they should be, as if they’ve been blown off their supports. If buildings couldn’t take it, I wonder, as I steel myself, what chance does a lone, displaced, unwanted tree stand?
As I turn my attention from the key back to the bridge paralleling our own, I see a bit of green in the distance, growing larger as we get closer. Sure enough, there she is, taller and more beautiful than ever. The Old Seven Mile has clearly seen better days, but this lone rebel of a tree? She’s spectacular.
This shouldn’t have surprised me; they Keys’ soil is nothing but dimpled limestone, so it didn’t take much for a persistent sapling to wend its roots into the pockmarked concrete.
I cheer for her — and for all the scraps of flora that not only survived, seemed to thrive through Irma. And I’m reminded again that, while man exists on the whim of nature, nature exists in spite of man.
Just past the Seven Mile Bridge, a trailer park — actual trailers, not mobile home parks, but a campground with, yes, many long-term residents — is gone. But — bright side, again — it’s rebuilding. Starting, it looks like, with new sewer lines. I’m starting to understand why the lodging rates were so out of touch with what I normally pay: many places are rebuilding better (good thing) but also taking a long time (relatively) to do so (not so good thing).
Near the Sugarloaf KOA, we pass the hulls of trailers and at first I assume they’re from the park, currently closed for upgrades. Upon closer inspection, it’s clear these were people’s homes. Here, too, we see those piles of debris awaiting cleanup, although the piles are smaller than I’d been led to believe.
It’s soul-wrenching to drive by these trailers and not think of other people’s dreams and wishes. It’s tempting: drop out, go barefoot, work on a sailboat and your tan. Rum-flavored drinks at night and fresh fish every day. Wake up surrounded by the sounds of the waves against the limestone and gaze out your window to infinitely aquamarine oceans. Instead of taking out-of-state visitors to Walt Disney World, you’ll take them to Molasses Reef to snorkel the coral reefs, or perhaps to Indian Key to explore.
The reality can be somewhat harsher: Most boat jobs don’t come with health insurance, and many in the service industry live in chopped-up mobile homes that definitely won’t survive a hurricane.
This is going to play out one of two ways in the Keys: Some people lost everything; some people didn’t. Some people have started rebuilding; some have not. Some will rebound; some will not.
The takeaway of the storm detritus and half-replaced signs is this:
The Card Sound Bridge, for years, had a toll booth with a blue canopy covering it. As you left the Keys via the Card Sound, blue cursive lettering implored you: “Don’t Forget Your Keys!”
So, don’t. You need to go there, and you need to go there soon. In Cudjoe and nearby, you’re not seeing the big picture, but you are seeing the reality of the working class that services paradise. It’s not fun — no one likes to have the curtain pulled back and find out the Wizard is actually a kid from Wisconsin with more dreams than savings — but it’s the reality of paradise, at least right now. And that reality is, it’s not going to get better without tourists.
We can understand that, right? We’re used to tourists here clogging our roadways, hogging our beaches, puking outside our workplace parking garage after a harsh Friday night in Ybor. We have a love/hate relationship with those big white Lincolns that drive for four miles, going 25 MPH in the left lane with their right blinker on. We may not love the operationalization of tourism, but we love the theory of it. And we sure as hell don’t want it to go away, especially not those working in restaurants or hotels or Busch Gardens or, well, anyone who doesn’t want to pay a state income tax.
The natural bits of the Keys are still gorgeous — even more so in many instances — and many (if not most) of the businesses services tourists are reopen. Overall, 80% of the lodging is open, the Keys Tourist Council reports. Key West is virtually unscathed; throughout the island chain, all attractions (think the Turtle Hospital and Theater of the Sea) are open, although some aspects of the attractions, like guided SCUBA excursions at John Pennekamp and stingray swims will reopen at some point this spring. The natural areas are spectacular and I can assure you there’s no shortage of places to get a mangrove snapper dinner or seafood.
Again, we were fortunate when Irma passed through. How long were you without power after Irma? Our house lost power Sunday night and got it back Tuesday. The Keys had a curfew and didn’t even reopen their 42 bridges for a week. Things, the Keys advertising folk love to say, are different down here. And it was never more true than it is after Hurricane Irma. And so, I close with this — visit.
Don’t forget your Keys.
Six months after Hurricane Irma ravaged the Florida Keys in 2017, Cathy Salustri explored the chain of islands to see what damage remained. This piece originally appeared at Creative Loafing. This piece marks the conclusions of Cathy’s 10-part series on a post-Irma Florida Keys. If you haven’t yet, go back and start at the beginning.