The Key West Mystique

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Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma | 5 years that changed Key West and the Keys

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

09/08/2022

Once a month I drive to Marathon and back for a board meeting. I’ve done that since before Hurricane Irma clobbered Key West and the Florida Keys on Sept. 10, 2017. For five years that 100 mile round trip has been my gauge for our recovery from Irma’s Category 5 winds, pummeling rain and storm surge.

The damage — and the recovery — is most visibly stunning across Big Pine Key, which, along with Cudjoe Key, took the brunt of the storm. Big Pine, especially through the sprawling Key Deer refuge, was a wasteland. From the Overseas Highway, there was little but gray, dead tree skeletons and brackish water.

Last week, unless one knew exactly where to look, one would be hard pressed to tell where Irma crossed the Keys. Trees are pushing above the thick under story and much of the wetlands water has cleared. Look closer, though, and Irma’s devastation remains. Dead trees haven’t fallen and been replaced with new growth. Garbage that will take millennia to decompose sticks firmly in the muck. But, yes, if we can make another five years without an Irma repeat, nature’s scars on the Lower Keys will have healed.

Hurricane Irma Strangler Fig
The historic strangler fig that soared above the West Martello Tower gardens was destroyed.

Key West was lucky. Hurricane Irma barely brushed Old Town with a Cat 1-level storm that knocked out power, water, communications, transportation and access. But storm surge didn’t flood us like Wilma a few years before. The winds cleared out debris and took down a handful of trees. A tree crashed onto Shel Silverstein’s old house. But within three weeks, most of Key West called itself “back to normal.”

Today is five years since Irma made landfall in the Keys on Sunday morning, Sept, 10, 2017. By noon, the worst of the storm had passed to the mainland and residents who stayed and first responders began the long haul of recovery.

Writing my way through Hurricane Irma

I’d flown off-island to visit my mother in Virginia a week before Irma fixed sights on the Keys. Two days before I was supposed to fly home, flights to Key West were cancelled. It would be another three weeks before I could get home. Ranger Ed and our Cat 5s stayed on-island. The last time I talked to Ed was Saturday night before Irma on Sunday morning.

I spent those weeks through Irma writing columns and social media posts. Key West resident John Teets and I dusted off our previously retired journalism careers, built a website and Facebook Page and reached hundreds of thousands around the world. He worked the 12-hour overnight shifts and I did the opposite ones. We overlapped as much as we could, napping randomly, never once actually talked with each other (though we texted constantly) and we researched, sourced and verified whatever news and information we could.

John Teets

That work kept us sane. We’d do it again.

It’s not the same since Hurricane Irma

But it wouldn’t, I suspect, be the same. Those were the days right before too many of us went off the rails over fake news, social media trolls and political squabbling raised to an art form. While John and I kicked off some trolls during our weeks online, they were few and harmless. Today the digital world is a swamp.

Those were the days right before Key West and the Keys gave up the last pretense of being working, family communities and, instead, became primarily tourist destinations with wealthy second home owners, snowbirds and investment LLCs designed to turn family homes into revolving vacation rentals.

Those were the days before Covid-19’s almost three years of stressors ripped through the fragile and rapidly vanishing middle class that held communities together. Before Covid meant fewer workers regardless of pay; housing and rental options staggeringly out of reach for real people; and, businesses closing or restricting services so they can survive.

Today I walk around town counting houses and buildings with their hurricane shutters buttoned up tight, an indisputable sign that no one lives there for real. The ones that make me laugh — well, OK, not laugh so much roll my eyes — are the ones obviously empty for the season and with no shutters. Houses just sitting there awaiting a vacation rental client in January.

I’m willing to bet a lot of those are owned by folks who’ve not a clue what hurricane winds can do, where the shutters might be stored or whom they can call to install the shutters. Good luck with that.

3 Comments

  1. Kristina Turner

    Well the HARC guidelines state that a building or home in old town Key West may not hang hurricane shutters on its windows unless a named tropical storm or hurricane advisory is in effect. So go ahead and roll your eyes if my house is empty… I’m just following the rules.
    Yes I kind of take offense to your article. We purchased our second home 11 years ago, taking (what would be a tear down anywhere else in the Country) and restored it ourselves turning it into an old town gem. We are productive and philanthropic members of our island community but many times do not feel welcome because we are not living there full time. Articles like this, continue to feed that unwelcoming us/them mentality.

    Reply
  2. Michael Larson

    Nice article Linda, we moved to Key Largo just in time to get clobbered, but all was, and is, well.

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Thanks, Michael. Sounds like you’ve made a home!

      Reply

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Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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