Changing Planet

Six months later, many Florida Keys residents still struggling with effects of Hurricane Irma

Some houses on Big Pine Key and Summerland Key have not been touched during the six months since Hurricane Irma made a devastating landfall on September 10, 2017. (Photo by Willie Drye)

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.

A passerby made a sarcastic comment on the high cost of living in the Florida Keys by hanging a sign on this mobile home destroyed by Hurricane Irma on Cudjoe Key. The sign says it could be rented for $1,800 a month. (Photo by Jane Morrow)

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

Willie Drye is an award-winning author and a contributing editor for National Geographic News. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.
  • Wes Weston

    The murder-suicide victim’s brother speaks out.
    I would like to compliment the author Willie Drye for keeping the failed hurricane recovery in the news. While hurricanes and natural disaster will always occur, mismanaged recovery and relief efforts should not. One would think we would have learned form Katrina, Sandy and a host of other storms.
    As the brother, brother-in-law of the murder-suicide victims, I would like to add some additional context and make a correction to the article.
    After a four month, post-hurricane battle with the county, and insurance company, my brother and sister-in-law were attempting to rebuild. They moved their small RV on to their property and had hand cleared their lot, removing three boats and mountains of mud and debris. Having received condemnation of their home, they had used their insurance settlement, only a fraction of the home’s previous value, plus all of their remaining savings to purchase a new kitted home. The home was to be on stilts, and Cat 5 hurricane proof. My brother had shared that this was one of the few designs that had survived the storm at ground zero. The down payment had been made and the material was being assembled for shipping. My brother had thought that since the new home would be placed within the existing home’s footprint, that permitting would not be an issue as this was already ‘disturbed earth’, in EPA terms. At this point, they had hope.That all changed with County meeting where they were informed of a $50,000 permitting fee and that if approved it would one to two years before they could build. After the meeting, my sister-in-law, who suffered from an incurable disease, asked my brother to take her life. Unfortunately he did, and then took his own life. They died holding hands in bed, in their RV. Before killing himself, my brother, who dearly loved his pets, called friends and asked them to take their two dogs and parrot. The friends desperately tried to talk him out of his intended action, but were unsuccessful, and when they arrived it was too late. The pets were adopted by their friends.
    Months later, friends and family still struggle with how this happened. It was ultimately a culmination of many things- a serious health condition, noticeably exacerbated by the stress of the recovery, fighting with the County for debris removal, power restoration, information, and with insurance companies that were slow to respond. In fact, when the insurance finally responded, they provided a boilerplate assessment that misrepresented their home’s design and construction, the damage that occurred, and severely undervalued the home’s worth. The report read like a mid-west river flooding, which it was likely plagiarized from. All, contributing to a mounting financial and physical stress, that they kept largely, under wraps.
    While I cannot, and will not excuse the act, I can somewhat understand it. They were ultimately failed by those entrusted and paid to manage or assist with recovery, and they lost hope. I know that if the recovery effort supported, instead of further punishing and penalizing the residents, they would be alive today, with a new home under construction, anchoring the economic recovery of Big Pine Key. While it is too late to help my brother and sister-in-law, others continue to suffer under the misguided, and mismanaged State and County recovery effort. There needs to be full accountability for the misdeeds of the public officials with the recovery, and plans put in place that immediately support the displaced, disadvantaged and suffering residents.

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