a hotel in the Florida Keys, as seen from Florida Bay

After Irma (first in a series)

The first time I saw the Florida 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 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 wasn’t really back to business as usual. White Gate Court remodeled the cottages that suffered water damage; the 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. And, so, tomorrow, I’m heading south to the Florida Keys. I want to see for myself what state paradise is in.

March 10 marks six months — has it only been six months? — since Hurricane Irma flooded the Keys as a Category Four storm. Over the coming days, follow us as we take a journey down to the Keys to see what recovery looks like. 

While working as the arts + entertainment editor for Creative Loafing Tampa, Cathy Salustri explored a post-Irma Florida Keys. Read the next in the series here