- By Kimberly Miller Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A year after Hurricane Irma battered the Florida Keys, the iconic island chain is open for business, beckoning tourists in search of candy-coated sunsets, tropical solace — their lost shaker of salt.
The sandal factories, shell worlds, and key lime stands advertise their colorful kitsch along the Overseas Highway that carries pilgrims to the promised land of sweet libations and Hemingway lore.
But scratch the surface of that coconut-scented veneer and a different side of Hurricane Irma recovery is revealed.
A thread of Keys society — musicians, artists, old-school Conchs and workaday Joes — is unraveling.
People whose grip on Eden was tenuous before Irma blew their homes apart, are feeling it slip away entirely in the face of strict rebuilding codes that require raised structures fortified to withstand Mother Nature’s worst.
It’s a unique dilemma in an archipelago where there’s no easy commute to cheaper suburbs. In other parts of the state, a trailer home lost to Irma could be replaced with another trailer home, said Phillip Decker, regional team leader for the United Methodist Conference working on recovery efforts in Monroe County.
On Avenue G in Big Pine Key, fourth-generation Conch Mary Grimes ponders how she’ll replace her ruined 60s-era trailer with a stilt palace of concrete.
The 74-year-old has six months to figure it out. March marks the end of FEMA’s Direct Temporary Housing Assistance — 18 months since Irma’s Sept. 10, 2017 landfall.
“We are trying with everything we can to stay,” said Grimes, whose $50,000 in insurance paid off her mortgage but is not enough to rebuild. “I don’t know how I feel a year after Irma. I don’t know how to put it into words. This is my home, but right now, I’m not permanent anywhere.”
Irma’s year anniversary is a frustrating time for Keys residents still struggling. They want the world to know tourism is back — their very livelihoods depend on it. They also want it known the person serving you fish tacos may be going home to a FEMA trailer and an uncertain future.
“Sometimes I’m walking the dog and I’ll hear a tourist say, ‘Oh, they didn’t get hit very hard, everything looks fine,’ and I just want to scream,” said Stephanie Kaple, executive director of the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition. “Not all wounds can be seen from the outside.”
Or from Duval Street.
Hurricane Irma was born out of a tropical wave that left Africa Aug. 27, 2017. The carousel of rapid-fire thunderstorms took just two days to whip into a major hurricane over the spa-warm waters of the Atlantic, a strengthening called “remarkable” by National Hurricane Center experts.
Irma’s 80-mph gain in wind speed over a 48-hour period is a rate achieved by only about 1 in 30 Atlantic tropical cyclones.
As a trembling Florida watched, Irma cut a path through the Caribbean like a lawn mower, running over Barbuda, St. Martin, Virgin Gorda and Little Inagua in the Bahamas as a raging Category 5 cyclone with winds maxing out at 178 mph.
Irma maintained Category 5 strength for a stunning 60 consecutive hours — earning it second place for Cat 5 longevity behind the 1932 Cuba Hurricane’s 72-hour record.
“You just had that very long buildup with Irma,” said Michael Brennan, hurricane specialist branch chief at the National Hurricane Center. “It formed just about as far east as it can form in the Atlantic basin, and there was stark visual evidence of what it did to Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands.”
Satellite images showed once lush tropical paradises scoured brown by windburn.
“Everyone was very hurricane aware,” Brennan said.
Fearing a loss in communications at its Florida International University bunker, the National Hurricane Center sent two meteorologists to the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Md., where they took over forecasting hurricanes Katia and Jose.
They were among an estimated 6.8 million Floridians who fled Irma as subtle shifts in the storm’s path sent people rushing to the west coast, then north in 20-hour treks to Georgia.
Brennan’s family went to St. Augustine, but he was still restless. The forecast weighs heavy when people’s lives are at stake. He startled awake subconsciously every morning around 2 a.m. to check the latest computer guidance.
“I remember finally falling asleep one night and then the alert went off on my phone when we issued the hurricane warning for South Florida,” Brennan said.
That was 11 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7.
Fifty-eight hours later on Sept. 10, Irma made its first Florida landfall on Cudjoe Key at 9 a.m. with 132-mph, Cat 4 winds.
Irma made a second landfall near Marco Island at 3:30 p.m. with 115-mph, Cat 3 winds.
While Irma’s eye crossed at Cudjoe Key, the highest wind speed reported in the island chain by an automated station was a 120-mph gust 10 miles east on Big Pine Key. Damage surveys indicate wind gusts on Big Pine were as high as 160 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
Big Pine, a French-fry shaped island 30 miles east of Key West, is home to the National Key Deer Refuge and the freshwater blue hole — an abandoned quarry used for Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad.
It’s also known for the “avenues.” The checkerboard of letter-named streets are a mix of worn trailers, lofty houses, and for-sale signs planted in front of empty slabs where homes stood before the storm. In 2016, the U.S. Census estimated the average worker living in Big Pine Key made $37,939 annually.
Grimes’ blue-trimmed trailer still sits on her Avenue G lot, but is too damaged to live in after storm surge pushed a wave of waist-high water through it. She lived in a FEMA trailer in her front yard for nearly a year, but was moved into a FEMA-funded apartment in August where she was recently trying to set up her printer to write a letter to HUD Secretary Ben Carson about her dilemma.
She’s waiting on permits to demolish her trailer, but at 74, she doesn’t think she can afford a mortgage. She estimates it would cost more than $200,000 to build a raised modular home.
“It’s difficult to maintain what you had when there are billionaires coming down and displacing us,” Grimes said.
Her Avenue G neighbor Christine King, 55, had the roof ripped from the trailer she bought only the year before Irma’s maelstrom. Two walls collapsed. Her belongings were strewn across the neighborhood, her refrigerator lost to the surge.
“No matter what kind of damage you had, you came home to a smelly refrigerator because of no electricity, but mine was totally gone, so that was kind of nice,” said a tie-dye clad King, who is living in a SportTrek travel trailer FEMA plopped on her property. “I couldn’t get over the power of nature. My stuff was everywhere, but I’m still here.”
Four blocks east, 16 FEMA trailers line up like Tic Tacs on a lot at Avenue C and 5th Street.
The one with the American flag out front is where 62-year-old William Sasser was relocated after an Australian pine crushed his Stock Island trailer to its foundation during the storm. He bought the trailer in 1989 and was paying $850-a-month for a spot on a canal where he eeked out a living painting images of Key West landmarks, sunsets and beach scenes for tourists.
Sasser said his nickname is the “Southernmost artist.” He has aspirations of painting more than palm trees on 8-by-11 canvases, but those are on hold. For now, he searches for a place to live and meets with a FEMA representative monthly who gauges his progress in finding a permanent home. If his efforts aren’t considered enough, he can be kicked out.
“The worst part is not having any type of security or knowing where you will go,” Sasser said. “The Keys have changed. They want a rich man’s paradise now.”
Sasser said he was told in late August he wasn’t “actively pursuing” a permanent residence. He was given 15 days to move.
“Tell FEMA to get off our backs and let the program run for the 18 months,” he said. “They are instilling angst, fear and anxiety in people who went through a catastrophe.”
Alberto Pillot, a FEMA spokesman in Florida, said 104 families remain in travel trailers in the Keys. About $66 million in FEMA grants were given to Monroe County residents for rent, home repair and other housing-related needs.
According to the non-profit Florida Keys Community Land Trust, which is building tiny stilt homes to provide affordable rental housing, more than 7 percent of the housing stock in the Keys was destroyed.
“We’ve lost about 4,000 homes, either to total destruction or substantial damage,” said George Neugent, a Monroe County Commissioner. “A lot of people think we have recovered and everything is fine and dandy, but that’s just not the case.”
Neugent notes teachers, police officers, bus drivers and healthcare workers are also suffering from a lack of affordable housing and some businesses remain shuttered. In Marathon, the Burger King, IHOP and Wendy’s are all still closed. Islamorada’s Islander Resort is scheduled to open this fall.
“We’re still here, we’re still standing, but we’re not better, and the truth is, we’ll never be what we were,” Kaple said.
In addition to the housing challenge, hundreds of canals are still choked with debris. About 100 have been designated as top priorities for cleanup, filled with sunken boats, toppled trailers and all manner of household detritus — washing machines, beds, sofas.
Monroe County received an up to $49.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for canal work, which began in late August. A county press release said FEMA has a reimbursement policy for debris removal on land, but not from canals, which is why what can’t be picked up by volunteers is still there a year later.
In Marathon, where Irma gusts were estimated to reach 115 mph, a trailer floated in a canal at the Key by the Sea RV and mobile home park in late August, only its roof visible. Next to it, the side of another trailer had risen to the surface after coming detached from a home still at the bottom.
Two canals east, a 32-foot sport fisherman named “No Sale” sat in black muck 20 feet deep.
Professional divers search the canals in what they call “braille diving” because they are feeling their way in the dark. When they come across something big, a barge comes with a crane to lift it out.
They found the No Sale where it sank alongside the canal-front duplex of Richard Slaton, 61, and Connie Merando, 68.
The couple stayed in their single-story, concrete block home through Irma. Water rose 3-feet high in the house, and despite a spiderweb of ropes meant to hold their boat steady, the No Sale began taking on water. Listing badly after the storm, there was no electricity to work pumps that may have saved it.
“I just stood there and screamed and watched her go,” said Merando, who made sure her daughter in Kansas had a copy of her will before Irma blew through. “It’s been so hard all these months knowing she was down there.”
On a Monday in late August, the No Sale rose again. But like the Keys, she may never be what she was.
“I hope someone comes along who will save her and restore her,” Merando said. “Because she was a blast.”