A first-time visitor to the Florida Keys might not realize that a major hurricane ripped across the subtropical islands only six months ago.
It’s the peak of the tourist season, and Alabama Jack’s—the ultra-casual, open-air waterfront restaurant and bar next to the Dade-Monroe county line—is crowded for lunch. And all appears normal driving down US 1 on Key Largo, where the highway enters the island chain from the tip of the Florida peninsula.
But there are subtle signs that Hurricane Irma slammed the Keys last September with winds that exceeded 130 mph in some places. Here and there are smashed signs and downed fences that have not been repaired or replaced. Blue tarps still cover many roofs. Greenery is returning, but much of it still has a ragged look.
Some of the most devastating effects of Hurricane Irma are invisible, however. The storm dumped a heavy load of frustration and despondency on the islands. Rick Ramsay—Sheriff of Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys—said many full-time residents are still struggling to put their lives back together.
The entire 130-mile-long chain of coral islands took a beating from Hurricane Irma. The Miami Herald reported that more than 4,100 homes in the Keys were destroyed or severely damaged by the storm.
Ramsay, who has lived in the Keys for 42 years, said “tons and tons of people” can’t reoccupy their damaged homes until repairs are made. But getting those repairs done is almost impossible because roofers and repairmen aren’t working on small projects like individual houses. They’re working on projects such as hotels and larger businesses where they can make more money.
In the meantime, displaced residents are living in campers and RVs. Some have been sleeping in tents on their properties since the storm, Ramsay said.
Prolonged disputes with insurance companies about claims payments are adding to residents’ frustrations. And the snail’s pace of reimbursements and aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are piled on top of the struggles with insurance companies, he said.
Local governments have run out of money to clear storm debris, and they can’t continue until money comes from FEMA.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican who represents Florida in the US Senate, told the Miami Herald that FEMA’s process for approving reimbursement funds for storm victims is much slower because federal officials do not want a recurrence of the widespread fraud that happened after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.
At a recent town hall meeting, the Herald reported, Rubio said he would try to get federal funds flowing more quickly to local governments and residents.
Hurricane Irma landed its most powerful punch along a 10-mile stretch from Cudjoe Key to Big Pine Key, about 30 miles northeast of Key West. Most of the debris has been cleared away from US 1, the only highway that links the islands to the Florida peninsula. But it’s a different scene only a few blocks off the main highway. Many homes have been repaired and reoccupied, but some neighborhoods remain devastated and empty.
Battered mobile homes have been hauled out to the side of US 1 to await disposal.
A recent murder-suicide on the Lower Keys was related to despair caused by the hurricane’s lingering aftereffects. A man shot his wife and his dog, then shot himself. Ramsay confirmed that the couple had lost everything in the storm and was despondent because they’d been told it would be two years before they’d receive any help from FEMA.
Many businesses—including some of the Keys’ most famous hotels and resorts—remain closed because of major damage. Hundreds of workers have been laid off. And many businesses that have managed to stay open are having serious problems finding workers. Housing costs in the Keys are very high. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment starts at around $2,000 a month, well beyond the financial means of workers such as waiters and waitresses, cashiers, gas station attendants, and similar service jobs.
“When you’re talking about affordable housing, that’ll take years,” Ramsay said. “The problem is right now.”
Ramsay said elected officials in the Keys are discussing building affordable housing for workers, but it’s a thorny issue that has no easy solution.
While there’s a consensus that affordable housing is needed in the Keys, many property owners balk at allowing it to be built near their homes. “People want affordable housing, but not in my back yard,” Ramsay said.
Listen to IPPY Award-winning author Willie Drye talk about his latest book, For Sale—American Paradise: How Our Nation Was Sold an Impossible Dream in Florida, on NPR affiliates WUNC, Chapel Hill and WLRN, Miami. Visit his blog, Drye Goods, now in its 11th year. Follow him on Facebook