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Photo: Emma Brink
Photo: Emma Brink

Places

Florida Keys welcomes us back

On 10 September 2016, Hurricane Irma swept through the tourist paradise called the Florida Keys. Months later, life is back to normal in many parts of the pearl chain of islands, while other parts are still battling to clean up and restore homes and businesses.

Irma was the worst storm to hit the Florida Keys for 57 years. You can still see enormous amounts of debris along the roads, that have been fully open again since 1 October. Fridges, mattresses, palm trees, parts of houses and boats are piled up in long rows along the roadside. Many of the beach front hotels are closed and if you drive off the Overseas Highway and into residential areas, you’ll see roofless houses, stranded boats and fallen palm trees dragged along by the force of the hurricane. The amount of wreckage still by the roadsides is a worry for Stacey Mitchell, Head of the Keys Tourist Development Council.

“The Overseas Highway is in the US Top 10 most famous and beautiful highways and over 80% of our visitors come by car,” she says.

Over 2,000,000 cubic meters of debris have already been cleared away. It took 8,500 trucks to do the job, and there were only 3,500 in Florida when the storm struck.

According to official calculations, around 1,200 homes and commercial buildings in Monroe County, which makes up the Keys and Everglades coastal stretch, were completely or partially destroyed on 10 September. Of the 55,000 households in Monroe County, 40,000 have applied for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In mid-December, over 500 households were still living in hotels, for which they will receive financial support from social services until February. Many others are living in caravans and tents where their homes once stood.

The Mayor of Monroe County fears the county will lose up to 15% of its population due to people having to relocate.

The areas around Marathon, Islamorada and Big Pine in the Middle Keys were the hardest hit, while in Key Largo and tourist magnet Key West, the damage was less extensive.

Around half the inhabitants of the Keys work in tourism, an industry that has been hard hit by the hurricane but which is slowly but surely starting to recover.  Many hotels, restaurants and diving stores had to temporarily close for business and although several have now reopened or are about to, a shortage of skilled labor, and the fact that many of the personnel have lost their own homes, is slowing the process. One thing is clear wherever you go along the length of the Florida Keys – businesses want to stay open and want visitors to know that. Tourism is their lifeblood and their customers are important to them. Perhaps not all parts of their businesses are in full working order again, but the parts that are, are in service.

At a hotel in Marathon, one of the worst hit areas, we’re welcome to stay in the room we had booked before the storm. However, they cannot serve food as the roof of the restaurant was blown away, nor are the elevators working as the power supply was knocked out during the storm. Many local residents testify that things are getting better every day, that the piles of debris are shrinking and many of them see the new year as a new start.

­“The weekends are still okay, but we’re noticing a big downturn during the week,” a café owner in Marathon says.

Marina Del Mar Resort and the Marina in Key Largo survived relatively unscathed and during the first month, when tourists were still not able to access the Keys, the hotel housed volunteers and public authority personnel.

“We were lucky,” Kevin at the hotel reception says. “We had a bit of flooding in the entrance, but we were able to open again after a couple of days for people who needed to stay here. Now we’re totally back to business as normal again.”

Tony Bonvini Photo: Emma Brink

Tony Bonvini from Key Largo captains a boat that takes tourists on Eco trips in the Everglades and Key Largo.

He, like many others, is keen for the world to know they are okay and that they’re open for business. The worst thing that can happen is that people stop visiting the Keys.

 “I was on a trip to Italy and when I told people I was from the Keys people thought they were no longer there. That’s completely wrong, most things here are exactly as usual.”

On a two-hour boat ride that takes us through canals and into the Everglades National Park, Captain Bonvini talks about the effects the hurricane has had. Like the fact that the sea cows or manatees are not as prominent as they used to be, and stranded and abandoned boats are left to waste in several places. Over 1,500 boats that were damaged or destroyed in the storm have been transported away – an important job as the boats could otherwise have a big impact on the environment.

“Here on the west side of the Keys towards the gulf, we have fared better than the islands on the ocean side. We owe a big thanks to our mangroves, they cushioned us from the brunt of the storm,” Bonvini says.

“Right now, it's pretty quiet on the tourist front, but it’s the low season. Things usually start picking up after Christmas and I think it will be the same this year. Things look really good.”

The southernmost tip of the Florida Keys, and the primary draw for most tourists who visit the area, Key West, emerged from the storm relatively unscathed. Some hotels are still closed, and a couple of small businesses have had to close for good. But as a visitor, there is not much to suggest a great storm surged through the town not long ago.

Amy Barnish works at The Spice & Tea Exchange near Mallory Square in Key West.

“We had to close for about a month,” Barnish says. “It’s been tough since then though and we’ve noticed there are far fewer visitors to the store. It was worse for small businesses like ours, than for the larger ones. Many of them have agreements with the cruise liners that send their passengers there to shop and eat. But for us, it’s not as easy.”

Barnish lives in Key West with her dogs and apart from a gate that was blown away, her home survived intact.

“It was worse for one of our employees who lived on a boat. Naturally, she had left Key West before the storm, but when she came back, the boat was gone, and it’s still not been found. She’s had to quit here and move in with relatives in north Florida.”

Barnish says that the traders and inhabitants in Key West are a very determined bunch though, and everyone is helping out to get things back to normal as soon as possible. She believes that within six months, everything will be back to how it was before the storm. She thinks the future is bright.

Larry Perll sells ice cream, cookies and Key lime pie at Mattheessen’s on Duval Street. Perll is from Connecticut and came on a visit to Key West 25 years ago and stayed. He loves the warmth and is convinced that the sunny weather will persuade people to want to visit Key West time and time again despite the hurricane. 

“Florida will always be Florida and the great weather can’t keep anyone away,” Perll says with a large grin.

“We had to close the café for about 12 days, mostly because people couldn’t get here as the roads were closed. Now, it feels as though we’re almost back to normal. At least for those of us here in Key West, but it’s worse for the Mid Keys. They’ve got a couple of tough years ahead of them.”

It’s hard to say how much the tourist industry will be hit by Irma in the long run. The high season is just round the corner. Monroe County has invested an extra $1,000,000 in an ad campaign to market the region as a tourist destination after the hurricane. Parts of the Florida Keys may have suffered a bit of surface damage and that will probably still be the case for a while. But the sun is shining as brightly as usual, the people are strong, happy and welcoming and more determined than ever that visitors should come and have a good time.

Last edited: January 3, 2018

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