On September 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane at Cudjoe Key, causing billions of dollars of damage throughout the keys. She will never be forgotten. Six months later, her rampage is starkly evident in the upper keys. Don Duchane, an Islamorada resident of 25 years, rode out the storm in a friends hurricane fortified home and states, “Never again! I stayed for Charlie, Gordon, Wilma, and Katrina but I will never stay for another Cat 4, and probably not a Cat 3”. He recalls those hours as the scariest in his life. “I thought I was going to die”.
As you enter the upper keys from Homestead, there are little remnants of the storm. Small sections of the large black fence that runs along Highway 1 are missing and there is some repair to areas of erosion but the mangroves of the Everglades are lush and green. Closer to Key Largo, Irma’s visit becomes more obvious. The view from atop Jewfish Creek, once a verdant and turquoise spectacle, now a muted palette with hues of brown from large patches of dead mangroves.
Deeper into Key Largo, many trees are awkwardly leaning as if they were frozen in time making a homage to the hurricane gods. Others are straightened, yet splinted at the bases to ensure they reestablish a strong root system. As the Overseas Highway leads south, there are more barren trees, stripped completely of their foliage, still after 6 months. Just north of Islamorada, the remains of a large ocean side trailer park remains fenced off and guarded by security. Once vacation hideaways are tossed about the barren space like tin cans.
Middle Islamorada becomes increasingly more depilated, many trees either no longer present or without the foliage seem to give a more open-air appearance. Many businesses are operating without signage or have undergone major renovations. The restaurants are full of patrons and many of the smaller hotels are open. Sadly, Postcard Inn took a hard hit and remains closed. Its marina was completely destroyed and is undergoing a remodel. It is unsure when it will reopen and if it will provide the same sports fishing activities as it did pre-Irma.
Continuing south, large concrete skeletons line the east side of the island, people rebuilding their homes, rebuilding their dreams. The old icons of Islamorada are alive and well: Loreli, Morada Bay, Islamorada Fish Company, Lazy Days, Bud and Mary’s, and Robbie’s all with full parking lots and lots of tourist supporting our little piece of island heaven.
The drive towards Marathon is very sad. Anne’s beach remains closed, it’s entryway draped in yellow caution tape. Sometimes Mother Nature has her way and she can have a strong disciplinary hand. Homes are leveled or just concrete skeletons of once million dollar paradises, large lots of blank sand surrounded by fences where a home and trees once stood. There is a flurry of activity to rebuild. Many homes have containers or dumpsters in the yard with obvious signs of construction, debris is almost completely removed and fallen trees are few and far between.
Despite Irma’s lasting footprint, the small roadside accesses are filled with families and friends picnicking and fishing. Boats fill the stunning turquoise water and the air smells of salt and Saturday afternoon BBQ. The keys are resilient and nothing says #keysstrong than this lone flag posted along Route 1 on Long Key.