Keys Strong

My first post-Hurricane Irma trip to the Keys was in early December. There were still a few signs of the storm in Miami – walls crumbled by giant trees whose roots had gathered the surrounding earth and raised it to the sky in their sinking; rows of unclaimed and now derelict sailboats that filled injured marinas. But these scenes were localized and had begun to blend in with the scattered cranes and safety cones of a city already littered with construction sites. But what of the Keys? They were ground zero, the site of first landfall for the seventh most intense hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in recorded history. I confess to having been somewhat nervous about facing the potential wreckage as I headed south.

Hurricane Irma damaged vehicle on the roadside.

I knew the middle keys had been hit hardest, so I was dismayed to see piles of debris as soon as the overseas highway merged onto the northernmost island. Old sofas, broken tables, whicker shelving, roofing and chunks of concrete were tangled within brush piles that sprawled along roadsides from Key Largo south. Signs warning that officials had cleared an area and that further dumping was prohibited were answered with towers of waterlogged lumber and tortured metal. I wondered how much worse it would get as I journeyed south.

Past Marathon, refrigerators, freezers, boats and mobile homes joined the roadside piles. Siding was stripped right off trailers, leaving meager wisps of insulation to fray in the wind amidst the insufficient plywood skeletons. Railings, windows and docks were ripped from oceanside homes, their awnings shred to threads. Tile roofs bore scars where Hurricane Irma binged through entire sections of terra cotta as if they were cookies. Tar roofs were simply missing. It was a glum scene, remnants of peoples’ lives reduced to rubble.

Only the top floor of an apartment building is visible after Hurricane Irma.

Some of the worst destruction seemed to be in western Islamorada on Lower Matecumbe Key. An entire building was consumed by the sea, broken pipes and a few remaining foundation beams the only signs that this jagged-edged cove was only recently ripped into existence. Another spot where the ocean had channeled across the narrow island left a multi-story apartment building sunk in sand. I stood on the severed driveway, staring past fractured plumbing and a remaining moat for several minutes before I realized that I knew this building. It was no longer distinctively flat, but this roof had been a nesting ground for least terns. I’d photographed this structure and its avian residents just a few years prior for my book Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens. What would happen to those poor terns upon their spring return? Their former nesting ground now topped an atrocity so significant that tourists pulled over for selfies in front of the destruction. This old-style roof would undoubtedly be replaced with a sleek and modern hurricane-resistant roof, wise from a human perspective but what of the terns? Just like the Keys’ human residents, the birds need lasting post-hurricane assistance. Perhaps a protected patch of graveled ground for these terns?

Key Deer picks its way around Hurricane debris.

Beaches, forests and landscaping were similarly beaten. Median plantings leaned heavily bayside; non-native palms waved the scraggly brown shreds that remained of their fronds; some beaches were missing; others were engulfed in sand dredged and dropped by the storm, piling 20+ feet high. The slash pines on Big Pine Key were browned to a crisp; and the blue hole was more of an opaque green, its lush surroundings toppled or dried – even the cattails looked like a line of toothpicks ready to tumble. Endangered key deer on No Name Key, those who survived last year’s screw worm attack, picked their way through a maze of rusting machines, plastic barrels and other assorted trash to forage on meager road-edge vegetation. Dismal? Yes, but there was hope.

Signs of hope – an island resident turned a depressing pile of trash into art.

Signs of hope – No Name Key Pub open & artistically promoting Key Deer.

Sugarloaf Shores, an oceanside community, had clearly banded together for rapid recovery. Roadsides were debris-free, yards were tidy, and apparent damage minimal. A group of men stood on one roof pounding in the last few tiles. A truck pulled in next door with what must’ve been a final pile of lumber because the house, the entire neighborhood really, looked ready for the cover of a real estate magazine. One home had fall decorations on the porch that included two pumpkins painted inspiringly with “Keys Strong” and “Home Sweet Home”.

Keys Strong. It was painted on those pumpkins, and also sprayed on the side of displaced boats, scrawled across remaining window plywood and festively announced on a 10-foot banner hung on old bridge infrastructure where a lone tree, growing directly from the concrete above the sea, was being elaborately decorated for Christmas by a team of locals. 

The Florida gardening section at Marathon’s bookstore, Hooked on Books.

Keys Strong. It was demonstrated by the crowd that showed up at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center on Islamorada for my talk presenting my newest book Biscayne National Park. These were not survivors, they were conquerors. Iguanas basked high along the towering ridge of the Islander Resort’s entry sign and while the oceanside hotel was still closed for repairs, its Bayside town homes operated as if nothing had happened; their beach and Florida Bay’s water already sparkled invitingly. The Green Turtle Inn, celebrating its 70th anniversary the day after I was there, served a delectable omelet in a cheery atmosphere. The local Islamorada bookstore, Hooked on Books, was open for business, displaying the best selection of Florida books I’ve ever seen in a single shop.

Keys Strong. It was the Tropic Cinema in Key West serving wine and popcorn in plush seats to two movies and my book talk simultaneously. It was the musician singing melodies at the old school Wharf Bar and Grill, Christmas decorations mingling with the usual marine-themed tree adornments above while a family of jungle fowl-looking chickens scavenged below. It was the bustle on Duval Street, thinner than usual but there nonetheless. It was the typical 35-minute wait for brunch at Blue Heaven, crowds sipping bloody Mary’s and mimosas as they awaited tables. It was the Key West Garden Club already planting anew after the loss of the banyan tree that had been a crowning glory of their West Martello garden site. It was the cheery report from the manager at the Books & Books in Key West that the Keys would bounce back. They’d lost a couple of windows and some books in the storm, but people were coming. Not only that, but locals were noticing more birds due to the thinned foliage and were buying my Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens book to aid in their replanting. It was encouraging and made me happy to think that my book might play some role in replenishing the storm-cleared landscape with native plants, plants that would provide for deprived wildlife and better withstand future hurricanes. I couldn’t help but agree with the manager – the Keys would no doubt bounce back, the process had already begun.

Key West’s West Martello Tower before Hurricane Irma.

Key West’s West Martello Tower after Hurricane Irma, missing its banyan but tidily replanted.

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