After Irma lower Florida Keys 6

After Irma: Ground Zero in the Florida Keys (part nine in a series)

We make landfall where Irma did, but — despite the images — all is not lost. Not even close.

Cudjoe Key has seen better days. So have most of the keys surrounding it.

This is the hardest piece I’ve written, because the lower Keys — actually, everything north of Sugarloaf — are the places that need your tourism dollar, but also the least well-equipped to have you.

It starts 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). 

The very first photographs taken of my husband and I was in front of a gorgeous lower Keys sunset. It’s framed next to our parents’ wedding photos, and when I think of paradise, I think of this place and this day.

Waaaay before Irma ravaged this spot. Photo by stranger passing by, taken with my camera, used (duh) with my permission.

This is what I see along that same stretch of roadway on this trip. It’s not exactly the same spot, but no one’s mistaking this strip of US 1 for paradise today.

If you're thinking the waters haven't receded yet, think again. This is a shallow estuary and that's only the top of what — we hope, judging by the size — is a shed roof. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
If you’re thinking the waters haven’t receded yet, think again. This is a shallow estuary and that’s only the top of what — we hope, judging by the size — is a shed roof. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

Things do not improve as we push south. Near the Sugarloaf KOA, we pass the hulls of trailers and at first I assume they’re from the park, which — currently closed for upgrades, which I’m certain is code for “we got messed up and now we’re fixing it” — once housed trailers. Upon closer inspection, it’s clear these were people’s homes.

Hurricane Irma destruction lower Keys six months later — photo by Cathy Salustri.
Photo by Cathy Salustri.

As we drive by the twisted shells of trailers, I remember the scene from The Goonies where they find all the coins people flipped into the wishing well and Stef (a young Martha Plimpton) tells her friends they can’t take the coins because they’re “somebody else’s wishes.”

Found on the roadside with gaping holes ripped in it: A trailer. Not a rental. Not a hotel room. Someone's home. Someone's dreams. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
Found on the roadside with gaping holes ripped in it: A trailer. Not a rental. Not a hotel room. Someone’s home. Someone’s dreams. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

It’s soul-wrenching to drive by these trailers and not think of other people’s dreams and wishes. If you’re reading this, odds are you’ve visited the Florida Keys at least once or dream of doing so, and while there you entertained at least a passing fancy of chucking it all and moving there.

It’s tempting: just 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. 

That’s the dream, anyway. The reality can be somewhat harsher: Most boat jobs don’t come with health insurance, and the service industry lives in chopped-up mobile homes that most definitely won’t survive a hurricane. 

I have lists of people to call — Jewfish Don at MM 20, Stan Sabuk, who owns Southern Keys Cemetery, countless others — but to what end? 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. 

Rather than go into the logistics of the Keys recovery (you can read the updates here), 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. Don’t let these few photos stop you. Yes, the parks are not all open. No, not everyone is open for business as usual yet. Yes, you still want to be there. If you read the earlier parts of the series and cheered when things didn’t seem that bad in a post-Irma Florida Keys, then landed here, you know there’s plenty that is open for business. Hell, I was there for three days and ran out of time to talk to everyone I wanted to interview for this series because there were so many places open for business.

But what you’re seeing here isn’t the almost-ready-to-reopen Cheeca, or the Perry on Stock Island (largely untouched as far as we can tell). You’re 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. 

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 was after Hurricane Irma.

And so, I close with this — don’t let these photos dissuade you. 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. 

So I’ll leave you with this photo, taken south of Islamorada and more representative of what you’ll see in the Keys.

Florida Keys six months after Irma. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
Photo by Cathy Salustri.

And, also, to borrow a phrase from that blue canopy on Card Sound Road, 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. Read the conclusion here, or, if you haven’t yet, go back and start at the beginning.