Long Key State Park may be long, but it’s narrow. That was a problem.
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.”
This is depressing, but, on Islamorada, things could be much, much worse.
What’s more depressing is the way Long Key State Park has all but disappeared.
I don’t recognize my park at all. In fact, we drove past it 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. The older stuff? All gone.
It’s not only the buildings; the natural areas haven’t gone wholly unscathed. Golden Orb Trail used to be a loop; the bridge washed away, and the trail is open, but the loop part is gone — for now. About half of the day use portion of the park is open. Without a trace of humor, he tells me the ocean is accessible from the park.
The campground is closed through December, but, he says, the primitive campsites may be open sooner.
Looking around, I think the “primitive” part is already open for business.
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. Read the next in the series here, or, if you haven’t yet, go back and start at the beginning.