The water rose quickly.
“It was bubbling up from the floor. We’re sitting on mangroves here,” said R.J. Potter.
He and his girlfriend, Susan Aldrich, hadn’t counted on that when they decided to ride out Hurricane Irma’s rampaging winds in Mangrove Mama’s restaurant on Summerland Key, about 5 miles from where the hurricane’s eye howled ashore Sunday morning.
“The wind was off the chain,” recalled Potter.
The Category 4 storm-driven water was over Potter’s head outside and rising to his shoulders inside the restaurant’s bar when the couple found salvation in a pair of blue pool noodles.
Potter, Mangrove Mama’s chef, and Aldrich, its baker, call themselves “tough Conchs” whose home is – or was, until Irma flattened it - a tent compound tucked in the mangroves behind the 100-year-old restaurant building.
With the water rising, Potter tried to get out one door to their life jackets outside, but couldn’t open it against the weight of the water.
“I thought, ‘Go with the current,’ he said.
Holding the pool noodles, they floated out another door with the flowing water, grabbed life jackets and held on until the water receded.
Three days later, they were cheerfully offering free meals of dolphin fillets, blackened or lemon pepper flavored, with a mountain of French fries to anyone passing by on U.S. 1.
“We’re Keys people and this is what we do,” said Aldrich, serving 60 pounds of fish Potter grilled from the restaurant’s inoperable freezer. “I would like to get a new tent from FEMA, though.”
When you live on a 120-mile chain of tiny, flat islands in hurricane country, resilience and generosity in the face of disaster seem to be as crucial as sunscreen.
In the hardest-hit Lower Keys, below Islamorada, where power and water were not yet back as of Friday, people are helping each other recover as government resources are only just beginning to reach them.
Various agencies have emergency headquarters set up in big RVs throughout the Keys. The Air National Guard is coordinating military aid arriving in helicopters at the Marathon Airport.
First responders are arriving from around the country, including a variety of teams from Palm Beach County. Federal agencies are giving out water and emergency rations at feeding stations throughout the island chain.
But independent, sometimes ornery longterm Keys residents have been counting on each other for decades.
“We appreciate assistance, but don’t depend on it,” said Jim Gilleran, who has been feeding hungry residents free from his 801 Bar on Key West’s Duval Street since Irma roared past.
“We’re the kind of people who pick ourselves up and start again,” said Key West resident Jane Wolf, who provided a temporary home for 10 cats from a damaged animal shelter.
“The hurricanes have been some of the best times down here,” said Kirby Kuiper, a waitress whose trailer on Big Coppitt Key is still livable. “People come together, they take care of each other, you make new friends and share what you have.”
Recovery requires patience. Just getting gas in the Lower Keys is a half-day-long affair, if it’s available.
At a Stock Island gas station, Meikiel and Cathii D’Anthonii waited nearly 4 hours for fuel so they could resume searching for their 47-foot houseboat home, which disappeared in Irma’s maelstrom.
The couple was part of a group of boaters who lived “on the hook,” or anchored, off Fleming Key near Key West.
“We’ll raise it and fix it,” said Cathii, of her retirement home. “We’re tough as nails.”
It’s what was heard over and over again from people who evacuated homes for nearby shelters, but refused to join the exodus out of the Keys even as authorities pleaded with them to leave.
There has been anger this week as well, particularly at the Mile Marker 73 checkpoint in Islamorada as Lower Keys residents in long lines of cars demanded access to their homes.
On Friday, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office still wouldn’t allow most Lower Keys residents past the checkpoint, as search-and-rescue teams scour the neighborhoods that took the hardest blows and water and power remain scarce. But on Saturday, Middle Keys residents were allowed to return home and by Sunday, all residents of the Keys can go home, according to the Miami Herald.
When they do return, many may be relieved, despite federal authorities’ estimates that 85 percent of Keys homes were damaged or destroyed by Irma.
The Keys’ strict newer building codes seem to have saved the islands from the kind of utter destruction Miami saw after Hurricane Andrew.
Sturdy concrete homes, built on stilts to allow storm surge to move through, survived, some with little or no evident damage.
But the cheaply rented trailers and older homes that housed the Keys’ service workers who work two and three jobs catering to the tourists, retirees and second-home owners, have been devastated and may expose an unsustainable inequity in paradise.
On Grassy Key, storm surge shoved a cottage that once stood on the Atlantic across U.S. 1, where it teeters in a massive debris field on the bayside, surrounded by refrigerators, air conditioners, boat parts, crab traps and furniture; bits of dozens of lives tangled in an rotting mess.
“That’s where our workforce lived,” said Jim Young, Key West’s director of code enforcement. “When an efficiency rents for $1,500 a month, where are these people going to live?
“Our economy is based on tourism and that part has been shut down for the time being,” said Young. “There are no cruise ships coming in. People are running out of money and have no jobs and no place to live.”
“I think the Keys are going to become even more expensive,” said Sharon Noeller, a waitress who lost her trailer when Irma smashed through Sea Breeze Mobile Home Village in Islamorada.
“We’re the workforce of the Keys,” said Billy Quinn, a carpenter who lived with two roommates in his wrecked, one-bedroom trailer at Sea Breeze. “And most people here did not have insurance.”
On Cudjoe Key, where Irma made its first U.S. landfall with 130 mph winds, looters have been scouring neighborhoods, say residents of Cutthroat Harbor Estates, where older homes appear damaged but not destroyed.
Bendetta Stankiewicz steps outside the hand-built house she and her ex-husband, now her roommate, starting building in 1962.
“I poured those concrete columns with a bucket while five months pregnant,” said Stankiewicz, 60, after pointing to the nearly 5-foot storm surge line inside her garage.
The worst damage to her house is her pantry shed, balancing at a rakish angle over her fence. She’s furious at the young men on ATVs she says have been going through empty houses, including one owned by her disabled, evacuated neighbor across the street.
“We never lock our door, we’ve never had to,” she said.
For now, the Keys aren’t paradise lost as much as paradise temporarily smelly and brown.
South of Key Largo, the islands reek of the stench of decomposing seaweed and look as if a giant blow torch raked the mangroves and gumbo limbo forests along U.S. 1.
All leafy shade is gone with the wind. It’s blisteringly hot under a searing, unforgiving sun.
People are sunburned, sweaty and below Islamorada, mostly unshowered.
But Keys people seem as resilient as the islands that will turn green again in a month or so, after the sun has burned away the smell, after residents have begun picking up the debris of their lives to start over again in Florida’s watery blue, end-of-the-road wonderland.