EDITOR’S NOTE: When we launched Key West Hurricane Irma, our online news coverage, we weren’t sure when “quit” would happen. We were confident we’d know. Today is the anniversary of knowing. It was time to wish our house guests farewell and Godspeed. This is how we wrapped things up.
On Tuesday, Sept. 5, frustrated with the lack of local news coverage of then-approaching Hurricane Irma, I figured, what the heck, I used to be a journalist and I love the possibilities of social media, so I could do it myself.
Facebook makes social media community-building fairly simple. Create a page. Source content. Post it. Talk with those who follow and comment. Rinse. Repeat. Add husband, Ed Cunningham, to the “staff” along with the Cat 5s for photos, videos and the occasional personal touch. Realize this was going to be considerably more work than I’d bargained for. Sing a siren song for another retired journalist (Pretty please, John Teets). We started with a few friends following along. We called ourselves Key West Hurricane Irma.
Five days later, I’d clearly underestimated the hunger for news and information. Facebook shut us down early on because we’d grown so fast it thought we were a spam site. Our posts have reached a million people — in two weeks. Our videos have been watched more than a quarter-million times. My hosting company throttled my website because you visited so much they thought I’d been hacked. As Irma roared across Key West to blow away the middle Keys on Sunday, Sept. 10, tens of thousands of you from around the world dropped into our home and stayed close by.
For that’s what Key West Hurricane Irma became. Our home. Where we shared our sense of global community, our fears, our joys and occasionally — though very occasionally — our worst selves. Late into every night, often well past midnight and back at it before dawn, John and I wrestled and posted the news content we gathered independently, shared our insights and managed the comments and messages.
John’s was the voice you heard as you read our responses. He cared deeply about each of you; his responses to you were heartfelt and personal. We made a good pair, these two retired Illinois journalists who call Key West home. I’ll not know exactly how to manage without his text messages back and forth at all hours.
Do you know? He and I never once, not once, actually talked to each other. We are happy word people; we write. Not talk. (Inside jokes: Squirrel, John. MGM lion. And that glorious line that still makes me laugh: “… I’ll make a couple more sweeps to see if a trolling trout has leapt to the hook of the drag queen.…”)
John and I started early on with four simple house rules:
- We’d post only news and information from credible sources. That meant scouring the web and using our own handful of local sources with direct, first-hand knowledge. No rumors, though we were honest when we’d say “we don’t know.” And, there were good sources. My on-island husband was one. Our neighbor across the street with his old-tech land line who first told us just after noon on Sunday that Key West had escaped the worst. Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers and Key West City Commissioner Sam Kaufman, two extraordinarily social media-savvy people. Two Key West locals, Mike Freas and Jamie Mattingly, whose sources in the community extended our reach, especially in the days right after the storm.
- We’d allow open comments and messages, but we’d whack the moles and swat the trolls.You wanted to whine, complain, throw political sandbags, advertise? There were plenty of other Facebook pages for that. And, we’d show you the door. Not in our house, please.
- We’d make it personal. Over the two-plus weeks you got to know our families and we yours. John and I joked via text one late night about “digital Stockholm Syndrome.” We were all of us sharing our lives under incredibly challenging circumstances. And, we did it with grace. Perhaps we can take a bit of that grace forward with us.
- We’d quit. We weren’t sure when “quit” would happen. We were confident we’d know. Today we knew. It’s time to wish our house guests farewell and Godspeed.
And, with that, let’s do one more short round of what we know, what we don’t know and what we think we know.
Hurricane basics: Hurricane Irma smacked into Key West as a Category 4 hurricane and made landfall in the middle Keys with the most powerful storm in decades. Mother Nature saved Key West. The island was on the southwesterly backside of the storm, where winds were less damaging that those that crashed into Cudjoe and Big Coppitt. The hurricane crossed Key West at low tide, creating a storm surge less than Hurricane Wilma’s, which drowned the island in 2005. Flooding, while extensive, was “manageable.” Fourteen people died in or during the storm; some of natural causes. Our sister islands at the upper end of the Keys fared reasonably well. The middle Keys in many areas were destroyed.
Building codes: The South Florida coastal building codes, which many considered draconian, excessively costly and downright unfair, today are proof that structures built to or renovated to those standards are virtually impervious to a Cat 4 hurricane and, if elevated appropriately, can withstand the subsequent storm surge. Structural damage throughout the Keys was almost exclusively to buildings and trailers not meeting the new standards. (And, as an aside: This should — finally — prove to the windstorm insurers that wind insurance in the Keys is excessively costly and based on inappropriate data.)
Recovery: Key West is rapidly recovering thanks to superhuman efforts by Keys Energy, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority and countless emergency responders and military personnel. Water and electric were restored almost everywhere in the Keys within two weeks. There will be, I am sure, political trolls casting about to lay claim to the best efforts and run from the worst. But, there’s nothing slapdash about the ways FEMA, the state, Monroe County Emergency Management, other locals and the assorted federal agencies got it together and got it done. There’s a lot of justifiable pride to be shared.
There’s massive damage. Don’t kid yourself — based on the good news here and there — that everything is just great in the Keys. It’s not and there will be months, even years, of recovery up and down the island chain. Many lost everything and the euphoria of Key West’s escape drowns out the destruction elsewhere. Had Key West suffered the damage of Big Coppitt, our stories and headlines would sound far different. Our landscaping will regrow, but today Key West is a naked, brown and prickly place with piles of debris towering over neighborhoods. And, there’s even less parking. While the main streets are clear, the side streets are not.
We need our tourists to come back and we really aren’t delighted that the governor and now the city are saying “open by Oct. 1.” I get the rock-and-hard-place decision. Without tourists, we have no economy. With them descending on us in a week? Egads, folks, come on down, but it’s not going to be exactly what you always dreamed. So be prepared that the postcards will be a bit tatty. We completely understand that without tourists, many of our island locals don’t eat, pay the rent or raise the kids. We also get annoyed when tourists are all bummed out because their timeshare might not be ready today. It’s hard to dredge up much sympathy when one can’t go back to work. It’s a conundrum. It will pass. But it’s tough to balance our need for cash and the reality of our damaged island home.
My Cat 5s are resilient and my park ranger husband is loving his days rebuilding fences, dragging brush, trimming trees and running chainsaws. Today, he played mechanical apprentice to rebuild an engine. Oil, grease, grime, sweat. That’s what little boys are made of. All five of our cats are happily out and about these days. Indoor cats one and all, they are grateful for the air conditioning and the back porch where they can torture anoles and chase the palmetto bugs. (Roaches, really, but that sounds so disgusting.)
Ed and I head for Atlanta late next week to babysit our grandson for a week. My clients’ patience is wearing thin. They need updates to their websites, new content, social media. They’ve got businesses to run; I need to get back to work — and billable hours. It doesn’t take long for real life and real bills to interrupt a crisis, does it?
I’m going home Sunday. I’ve been with my mother in Virginia since Aug. 28. It was supposed to be a few days; we’re headed into a month. She’s moving into an assisted-living apartment (happily, thank heaven); being together has been good for both of us. We pack and put color-coded stickers on things, give away furniture but not the memories, argue occasionally, eat supper in front of the television. My youngest brother (I am the eldest of five) takes over on Sunday for the final details. Like my “digital family,” it’s good to share.
And now I must do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Say goodbye to you and text John about this one last time. What a strangely wonderful family we created, didn’t we? Proof in today’s chaotic, politically explosive world that most of us are good people, that the angry voices that so shrilly down us out are but whispers in the face of our compassion for each other. You’ve been ready to share, to help, to make a connection that matters. You were there for me when I was terrified I would lose my husband, my home, and yes, my Cat 5s. I am grateful.
See you on the flip side. Godspeed, my friends.
Linda Grist Cunningham is editor of Key West Island News and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband, Ed, live in Key West with their five cats.
Thank you so much.
You’re more than welcome, Suzanne. Hope we don’t ever have to do that again!
I will miss your posts. Maybe one day you, John and the Cat5’s can blog from Key West?, that would be wonderful.
Wonderful work and your words are so kind and reassuring. I am glad that we all share the love of the Keys. Thank you.
awesome job without you would have never known the true story of what happened. God bless you and your family.
Thank you. Best wishes to you, your husband & the Cat 5s. I will be looking for your husband when I visit Fort Zach this year!
We are MARSHALL! Thank you for taking time to publish this page!
Bravo! You’ve done a wonderful job and service here. My wife and I founded and own a magazine and companion digital sites in the Virgina Blue Ridge over a dozen years ago. I fully appreciate what you have done. My only connection to the Key West was a trip there in the 90s with a girlfriend back then. Loved it all!
I wanted on the ground info about what was happening there. You and your Facebook page were better than anything else out there. You did a tremendous job. And you provided a very important service in the process.
Thank you for what you have done. Prayers and thoughts of better days ahead for all of you back there in the Keys.
Thanks from Rockford. My husband and I got married in Key West in 1998 at Ft Zach, and Key West means the world to us. It’s our #1 vacation spot, and I can’t tell you how much of a comfort it is to read what you were writing and reporting, knowing you were a source I could trust completely. I’m glad everybody seems to have made it through the storm relatively unscathed. Things can be rebuilt, trees can be regrown and replanted, but the people are the most important. It’s been wonderful to see everybody there helping their neighbors, and I only wish the rest of the country could learn a lesson from FL and TX in the way you have all handled the aftermath of Harvey and Irma. We should treat each other like that all the time, not just during disasters. Thanks for all the work you guys did keeping us all informed!
Thank you! Thank you! You made a difference! ❤️
You have been a light to us all! Making us smile thru the tears. Ever thought of writing a book?
Thank you so much!
Having had the chance to work with you in the past, it gave me wonderful comfort to know that you were behind this effort. I knew that you would tackle this task with every ounce of your being.
You’ve been a good friend over the years, a neighbor I wish I saw more often, and a leader others should emulate. You guided us through one of the scariest moments of our collective lives. Maybe I felt more comfort knowing you personally but it does not surprise me that countless others were glued to your page. Thank you, thank you! I owe Ed some vodka and I owe you the most heartfelt hug to date!
I love you and am honored to call you a friend. I promise I will see you more! Travel safely!
Oh, crikey! You made me cry. And that’s darn hard to do. Hugs, Phil. See you around the corner.
Thank you for all the info and insight. We visited Key West in January and loved it. We were heartbroken fearing the worst and you were able to ease our worries. Wishing you all the best in your little paradise.
I was born and raised in Key West, my parents still live there. I really appreciated your reports each day since my parents evacuated and I knew we couldn’t trust most news reports. Thank you.
Sorry to see you close up this shop. Thoroughly enjoyed your style of writing and the news you brought to our eyes about our favorite Island in this nation, Key West! God Bless and safe travels!
As a relatively new homeowner in Key West I read your reports avidly. Thank you for your professionalism and sense of humor during these trying times. Your posts gave my husband and me honest reporting delivered in a down to earth style. Hope to meet you some day and express my gratitude.
Thank you for all the updates. We are still holding our breath for Frank’s brother in Houston. His was one of the houses sacrificed to relieve the pressure on the reservoirs and they have had to find alternative housing at this point. Take care. Enjoy Atlanta.
Oh, Cindy! How awful. We didn’t know. Will say a special prayer tonight!
Thank you! Getting through these weeks has been easier because of your efforts.
Your blog was a labor of love! Thanks for all the info, and insights. May God bless you and your family.
“Thanks for the memories…”
Than you! I loved reading your posts from our home in MD until we got back to our home in Key West. We are cleaning up and trying to help neighbors and friends. Thank you! Thank you! Love the KW family.
Thanks Linda & God speed.
You and John did one hell of a great job with this site, which created a ginormous community that was hungry for news, information and level heads.
Wishing you and all of Key West blue skies and happy days ahead.
Thank you for the updates! It was wonderful to get to know you and your neighbors thru this site. I wish Godspeed to you and your family as you return “back to normal.”
You and John have done a terrific job! I remember how excited we were when you popped up on our computer and, believe me, you two were a welcome sight! We will be volunteering again at Ft. Zach next fall and will be looking forward to meeting you and your husband.
God Speed, my Facebook friend and thanks for the memories!
You were an information lifeline to so many who cherish this island, whether as their home or their vacation get-away for many years. Thanks for caring and sharing.
Thanks for the time you took to create this page and to update all of us with good, current info. You gave all of us hope during a stressful time. Safe travels home and maybe I’ll run into you to personally thank you.
Thank you for your reporting. It was an enjoyable (hurricane, aside) website. Sure hope that your family, including cats, go back to the good life.
Bless you for keeping us up to date with legitimate news on our beloved Keys. Although some news was hard to take at times it was real and much appreciated as the typical media often shows the worst with rare insight into the uplifting. We are so looking forward to our next visit and the ability to once again contribute to the economy. God speed ?❤️?
Thank you for your insights into a real family going through a real hurricane. We’ve never been to the Keys, but had planned to go for our 25 th anniversary the end of October. But early September brought news that I was going to have major back surgery on 9/5, so the trip was cancelled. As I recovered in the hospital, I was fixacted on finding out what was happening to the islands I have longed for years to go to. I enjoyed your perspective considerably, knowing the Cat5 made it with no problems, as well as most of the rest of your immediate world. My husband, also a former journalist, now a sales supervisor for the local Budweiser distributor here in Milwaukee, would have taken to the net to update the world, just as you did, if our immediate world was faced with a huge crisis (which rarely, if ever, happens in our neck of SE WI).
First hand accounts of situations like this are always the most interesting to read. I’m very happy for your family and friends who survived, and pray that the Keys return quickly to the fun, thriving destination it was before that bitch Irma interrupted your lives!
Plans are for us to see y’all for our 26th anniversary in 2018, barring hurricanes or god forbid another surgery!
Linda, I just have to thank you for your posts of information and the manner in which is was delivered. I’d visitedKey West for the first time this past July and like so many others, fell in love with the place and the people. Immediately began plans to return next year. I’m so grateful your husband and cat5 fared well and you had blessed time with your mother.
Hats off to You and your Team. You showed us how to report the facts with feeling and big hearts. Godspeed to you, Ed, Cat5 and the entire Key West community. I will hope for an “epilogue” to remind us that the sun shines once again in the Keys! Thank You.
A bittersweet conundrum. So relieved that our favorite people and Place survived. So distraught for those that lost so much. Thank you for your efforts.
A wonderful job! Thank you for keeping us up to date on our favorite people and place.
I love your writing style. Where did you study?
Thanks for all of the very much appreciated updates and information.
Love from Michigan.,
Chantal Hoey-Sanders, Author & Fibromyalgia Patient Advocate
I’m a Marshall University grad; Huntington, WV. But, pretty sure that writing style comes from millions of hours reading, a mother who corrected our grammar mid-sentence and four English teachers who were relentless!
Thank you so much for all the info and love. ?? God bless you for your efforts and your hearts!
Thank you SO much. You have no idea how helpful this was. Hope to actually meet you some day – maybe at Isle Cook!