After Hurricane Irma update: Key West suffering as rays of hope emerge

5:51 p.m Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017 Local
The marker at the southernmost point, in Key West, shows the damage from Hurricane Irma Thursday, September 14, 2017. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

After 25 years in Key West, Jim Gilleran knows residents need a cold beer, a hot meal and a place to reconnect after a hurricane.

While most bars and restaurants remain shuttered on Duval Street, Gilleran opened his 801 Bar hours after Hurricane Irma smashed past the island. He’s kept his generator operating since, serving nearly 700-800 free meals a day.

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Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The marker at the southernmost point, in Key West, shows the damage from Hurricane Irma Thursday, September 14, 2017. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

On Thursday, the bar stools were packed with sweaty, unshowered, hungry residents anticipating a steak lunch while staff gave out bags of donated food and toiletries.

“Honey, you need anything?” asked a worker carrying a basket of facial wipes, toothpaste and tampons.

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Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Jim Gilleran, owner 801 Bar on Duval Street and member of the Key West Planning Board, on Thursday, September 14, 2017, who opened his business shortly after Hurricane Irma, serving 700-800 free meals a day. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

“My father taught me to take care of myself and my family so I can take care of my community,” Gilleran said on the day civilization slowly crept back into Key West, or at least as much as this idiosyncratic city at the very southern tip of the U.S. will allow.

The Publix in the Searstown shopping center on Roosevelt Boulevard also opened Thursday morning, a portal out of the suspended animation that a lack of electricity, cell phone service and water has held the city in for nearly five days.

Ed Sauer and Rit McClintock were nursing beers on outside bar stools while contemplating ways to return to Ft. Myers.

In the past week, they had two flights, a rental car and a bus trip cancelled, courtesy of Irma. With no operating ATM for 100 miles, they ran out of money until a new acquaintance offered them $1,000.

“Pay me back when you can,” he told them.

Sitting outside Pepe’s Restaurant, the oldest in the city, three residents who stayed during the hurricane were waiting for coffee while trading storm stories.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Key West residents pick up food and water at an emergency distribution center on Roosevelt Boulevard after Hurricane Irma Wednesday, September 13, 2017. Each person got 4 boxes of food with 4 meals per box, and each family got a case of 24 bottles of water. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Barbara Bowers, a real estate agent and columnist for the Key West Citizen newspaper, said her city’s residents are sturdy survivors, like her 1850 Conch house, which easily weathered the storm.

“Don’t let anyone call us cowards,” she said, laughing.

Irma’s 130 mph winds felled a few of Old Town’s huge ficus and banyan trees, damaging a few Conch houses, but most appeared unscathed, although streets are littered with broken tree branches and palm fronds.

“They told us we were all going to die, so we should evacuate,” said Rick Davis, who didn’t. His concession to the storm was moving off his 37-foot boat and into his office at Key West Printing.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The marker at the southernmost point, in Key West, shows the damage from Hurricane Irma Thursday, September 14, 2017. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

“Next time, fewer and fewer people are going to leave,” Davis predicted.

Brenda Duley reported that a chihauhua found swimming in the ocean off the Pier House after the storm was fine.

“It had to have been a boat dog swept off in the storm,” she said. “Her new name is Irma.”

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Duval Street is deserted and Key West has little power, but only modest damage except for downed trees after Hurricane Irma Wednesday, September 13, 2017. Only a few businesses and one motel in town seem open at this time. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Meanwhile, throughout the Lower Keys, search and rescue teams are continuing to comb neighborhoods looking for hurricane victims.

On Cudjoe Key, where Irma made landfall Sunday morning, a member of a City of Miami search-and-rescue team approached fallen power lines with a “hot stick” to determine whether the line still carried electricity.

“The power company is testing lines, so it’s possible some of these could become live periodically,” he said.

In searing shadeless heat under the denuded trees, crew members knocked on doors on Wahoo Lane to ensure residents had either evacuated or were safe at home.

Also on Thursday, streams of government SUVs, convoys of supply trucks, construction equipment and Publix semis could be seen moving through the Lower Keys.

Authorities are advising people to stay away from their homes for another few days until essential services are in place.

Key West currently has little power and water for two hours, twice a day.

The Keys’ water comes from the mainland through underground pipes, but hurricane-related breaks caused losses of up to 3 million gallons a day, requiring rationing, according to Jim Young, Key West’s director of Code Enforcement.

On Radio 104.1, virtually the only current source of post-storm information in a place lacking newspapers, television, wifi or cell phone service, Monroe County Commissioner David Rice pleaded with FEMA to arrive quickly with shelter for homeless residents.

“We’re going to have thousands of people coming back to their homes that can’t sleep in them,” he said.