Hurricane Irma Cathy Salustri Florida Keys Bobs Bunz Islamorada

After Irma: Mango salsa and manatee (part four in a series)

Six months after Hurricane Irma devastate the Florida Keys, we learn that not all economic hardship results from the hurricane.

I have a theory about restaurants: The more misspellings and syntax errors I find on a menu, the better the food will taste. At Bobs Bunz — I’m pretty sure that misspelling is intentional, but the rogue apostrophes on the menu are not — I’m not disappointed. I tuck into my jack cheese and mango sauce omelet with gusto, thrilled to taste my theory proven right once again.

The night prior I’d feasted on pistachio-and-cashew-crusted hogfish at Chef Michael’s, where our server told us she’d recently started working there because her former employer, The Islander (a Guy Harvey resort not unlike St. Pete Beach’s Tradewinds), had yet to reopen after devastating flooding had blown out most everything in the iconic Keys resort. 

We’re staying bayside on Islamorada, where things seem normal. It’s not until we make the drive to Marker 88 — north-ish — at night that we notice the lights that aren’t there: Postcard Inn, The Islander, The Cheeca and other bars, restaurants and hotels have few, if any, lights on, and the inky black vacuum reminds us that fate’s windy finger held the island at its mercy: had the storm shifted even slightly, the ocean side would be thriving and the bay side would be devastated. As it happened, the storm sent an eight- or nine-foot wall of water over the ocean side, leaving the island bereft of lodging. Even now, Judy Hill of the Islamorada Chamber tells me the lodging is back up to 50% of what it was on Sept. 9.

“We depend on tourism for our economy,” isn’t lip service; the server before us at Chef Michael’s is proof. The service industry in the Keys is unlike any other beach town, where opportunity isn’t sharply delineated by geography. Buses bring in workers from Homestead and other south Florida towns, and when the hurricane removed their employers — even temporarily — these workers had the choice to find work on the mainland. For those living in the Keys, however, those choices didn’t come as easily. The Keys has never exported workers; the cost of living here makes it impractical for most to take a blue-collar job off-island. (We ran a quick search and the bulk of long-term rentals in the Keys start at $2,000/month.) Keys residents, then, had to compete for the remaining jobs or leave the island. Leaving the island means giving up perhaps-reasonable (OK, reasonable for the Keys) housing and, when your employer re-opens, hoping you can find something similar. It’s a gamble many will not take.

Back to Bob’s Bunz. The next morning at breakfast, I ask if the mango sauce in the omelet has gluten in it.

“I’m new; I’ll have to check,” our server says.

“Where did you work before?” I ask, waiting to hear the name of a still-recovering restaurant or hotel.

“I’m a manatee biologist,” she says. “Trump annihilated my office.” Her anger isn’t directed at us, but it’s as tangible as my coffee mug.

Her name is Kit Curtin (yes, she and legendary SNL alum Jane Curtin are fifth cousins — I asked) and, before she had the pleasure of serving hungover tourists and traveling journalists some of the best omelets I’ve eaten on Islamorada, she spent 31 years as a manatee biologist for the United States Geologic Survey. Using the prop scars on the backs of manatee, she and fellow biologists would track the giant marine mammals — and also their habitat.

“It’s so urban in Miami, we really have to protect that habitat,” she says. What she tells me next floors me: In between shifts waiting tables, she takes her camera and travels to manatee habitat on foot and by car to record the patterns and habitat conditions of manatee, then sends the results back to her former office. She does this for free, using her own money for fuel and anything else she may need, because she believes in the work.

“Could we order?” an impatient couple calls out to her as we talk about climate change and she suggests reading Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century. She moves away to take their order, leaving me to contemplate how the same party that practices assertive ignorance regarding climate change — which many would argue played a large part in the back-to-back massive hurricanes that landed so many in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico jobless, homeless and often hopeless — is also devastating many who have dedicated their lives to safeguarding those areas, too.

And then I think about Kit Curtin, supporting her passion of protecting manatee and their habitat by waiting tables.

Maybe all isn’t lost. 

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.