Hurricane Irma - Risks and Rewards of Coastal Living

Tropical Fish

As a South Florida resident of more than 45 years, Hurricane Irma delivered another harsh realization of the risks of living by the sea. A year ago, we moved full time to the island of Marathon in the Florida Keys. We chose Marathon because it is away from the Key Largo and Islamorada weekend vacationers. Key West was not an option, even though we do love it, because it is a party town famous for colorful festivals, romantic weddings and is also a popular stop for cruise ships. We preferred a more quiet life which meant Marathon in the Middle Keys was the place for us.

With only one road in and out, living in the islands quickly taught us the virtue of patience. Just one small fender bender in the wrong location could close the roads for hours leaving us gridlocked behind the wheel and with any luck, it would be on a bridge so we could stare out at the aquamarine sea and coral reef.

The Florida Keys 112 mile island chain is interwoven with resorts, million dollar homes and rickety-old trailers who often share the same street. Hurricane Irma took quite a toll on the one level trailer homes south of Duck Key, in fact, it leveled most of them. This has created chaos and anxiety as folks try to place trailers back on these lots which will ultimately lead to a repeat performance when the next monster storm rolls in. Not everyone has a half mill to build a new home, especially folks who live in a $25,000 trailer. I’m thankful Monroe County management has not been harsh on these folks and that they continue to be proactive looking for reasonable solutions understanding everyone is not rich. Our leaders know it takes a village to survive and thrive, a village of worker bees and vacation spenders.

I can't help notice how well newer stilt homes held up after winds of over 150mph slapped them on the left and then on the right. The storm surge caused the most destruction. Storm surges ranged from 5-12 feet. A powerful, slow moving wall of water that took everything in its path with it. Hurricane Irma has given me a completely different perception and appreciation of modular stilt homes.

Back at our stilt home on the edge of the sea, everything we had downstairs was washed out to sea or inland towards Overseas Highway. Items like my key lime bicycle, our knock-off 200 pound green egg smoker/grill, the jam-packed boating storage closets, Tommy Bahama patio furniture and stinky bait refrigerator. Honestly, I won’t miss the stinky fridge. When we were allowed back into the Keys seven days later, we returned to find concrete skeleton legs supporting our stilt home and nothing else in our yard. The postcard perfect palm trees lining the seawall are now brown and droopy.

The suspense was intense as we climbed the stairs to see what surprises waited behind the hurricane shutters on our front doors. We were speechless to discover zero damage inside. We do not have hurricane windows but we did board up with heavy metal shutters. The new roof helped too.

We lost our 70 foot oceanfront dock and beautiful white sandy beach side yard. The dock's wooden top was completely ripped off and a few pilings are now twisted. Estimates are coming in around $15,000 and the insurance does not cover docks or loss of sand. Fortunately most of the damage to our home is cosmetic. Yes, it’s not pretty to look at but it is functional with cold air conditioning. I can live with that. As long as I don’t look down, the view out my second floor french windows are as pretty as ever, minus the beautiful boats at sea.

We are among the lucky ones. Several of our neighbor’s docks are a complete loss, not only economically but from a time point of view. It could take years to rebuild the docks waiting for a barge to drill the pilings. Gut wrenching. When you live in the Keys and don’t have a boat (or can’t use it) what’s the point? Our protected marine sanctuary is priceless and now littered with underwater debris.

Times have changed. If we’ve seen ten boats pass by our home in the last 30 days, that would be a lot. On a normal day, we would see dozens every day. The twisted silver lining for those who lost their docks like us is who would want to go boating anyway when the shoreline is full of submerged debris that can quickly destroy a boat’s lower unit or cause an injury. I lay awake at night wondering how that will ever be cleaned up.

So many people we know and care for, lost it all. Everything! Now they are left with muck and seaweed. They spend their days stripping their homes to the framework to get rid of the salt water damage and festering mold. People all over town are coughing and wheezing from battling mold. The few hotels that are open are full with FEMA victims. Finding temporary housing is a daunting task.

Hurricane Irma was not the first nasty storm to hit the Florida Keys. Hurricane Wilma delivered a powerful punch back in 2005 and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 took down many of the Keys bridges and railroad system. Keys folks are strong but this one was a doozy and has left many in a quandary.

So one might ask, why would we live here? Because it’s Eden, a modern day paradise where the air is always fresh, the locals are always kind and the ocean is always full of heartwarming surprises. From massive loggerhead turtles playing peekaboo to dancing dolphins, and curious tropical fish who love Cheez Whiz to entertaining bird life who don’t care if you’re there or not. It’s a natural outdoor stage unlike we’ve ever seen. To live on an exotic coral island makes the hassles we’re living with right now worth every second.

Things that impressed me and depressed me after Irma...

Governor Rick Scott took a strong stance on being prepared and coming to Florida’s rescue immediately after. Hurricane Irma beelined straight up the state after pounding the Keys causing havoc everywhere. We were amazed to the see the level of military, first responders and FEMA responders here in the Keys. It made us proud to be an American, to realize that in the face of a disaster, Americans are not alone. The resources we’ve seen are tremendous. We may not get everything we want in a time of crisis, but we will get what we need. People did not go without food, water and basic services. We’re so thankful for the number of faith-based organizations that came into town and got their hands dirty to help with the clean up efforts.

Almost 30 days later, debris clean up crews are still here and thank goodness! I’ve never seen so much trash in one place, trash today that was once a valued possession in someone’s home. Huge trash piles are found on every street, in front of every home. It’s disgusting and they smell like dead rats. It’s even more appalling to watch people stop by with their cameras to take pictures of the destruction or rummage through people’s personal trash piles looking for valuables, perhaps something they can sell back to us at a yard sale.

City services are starting to return again which is encouraging. Things like postal mail and trash pick up, things I took for granted. We are very impressed to see which businesses rebounded quickly and reopened. Places we all could gather at, to try feel normal for an hour or so. Those include Publix, Home Depot, gas stations, Walgreen’s, Overseas Pub and Florida Lobster & Steakhouse. The hours and menus were limited but they were open. Banks understandably took longer to open. Monroe County has done a stellar job keeping residents informed about every form of assistance available. We love the Monroe County Sheriff’s text alerts that tell us important information we need to know locally.

Hurricane Irma taught me an invaluable lesson in human sensitivity. If one lived in Seattle, it’s unlikely one would have thought about the drudgery we are dealing with. Night time curfews and the darkness from lack of power could spook any tough guy. The danger on the roads from blown tires or twisted aluminum made us never want to leave the driveway. Living on the front lines of a disaster deeply tests your patience, mental concentration and physical endurance. I was speechless as I observed businesses out of the area promoting expensive jewelry purchases and exotic vacations to folks in the Keys via email, not thinking about if folks might have a home to sleep in at night. 

We watched many folks from around the country selflessly jump in their cars to help with grueling clean up for the day. Words cannot express deeply enough our gratitude. We also have watched yahoos rolling into town hoping to make a fast buck from the desperation. Shameless.

A natural disaster does crystalize who cares for you. It was a pleasant surprise to see how ‘social’ the Florida Keys community is. There are a handful of private groups on Facebook (residents only), some with over 10,000 members. When you ask a question to these groups, you’ll likely get some of the best local advice you could ask for. Yes, some of them are grumpy ole trolls with nothing better to do than complain, but most try to be sincere and helpful. If a business or person is great, everyone knows about it. If someone is a schmuck, they better run for cover.

In the months to come, I’m sure there will be a lot of lessons to be learned dealing with insurance claims. The first and most important lesson I learned from Irma is about self reliance. Having a plan, being prepared and being flexible. I’ve also learned to cut myself some slack during these hard times. It’s normal to have moments of depression after seeing our beautiful island paradise brought to its knees. A local gave me some great advice. He said “when you’re feeling depressed, go help someone less fortunate than you”. That is the attitude of Marathon and I couldn’t love it more.

Insurance and non-assurance. Can you believe it’s been almost 30 days and we’ve yet to hear from our insurance company other than an email? I’m not pressuring them because I see the desperation from those who live paycheck to paycheck waiting for insurance and it breaks my heart. Let them be taken care of first.

It's sad to see locals exiting the Keys because they can’t find a place to live or don’t have a job because their employer’s business has not reopened. Home prices in the Florida Keys will likely fall during the next year which will create opportunities for some and bad memories for others. My suggestion to you if you're considering buying a home in the Florida Keys, is to make sure you choose a stilt or elevated home just like folks do on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Cape Cod Massachusetts. Choose high quality newer construction like the homes at Marlin Bay that are built to withstand today’s fierce hurricanes.

Also, be sure to evacuate when told by authorities. Don't endanger your family, pets or first responders because you’re a tough guy or girl. Be smart if you're going to live on the coast.

Living by the sea has its risks and but the islands bebound quickly. Another salty old dog said to me recently “in two years no one will talk about Hurricane Irma, mold or debris anymore” and it’s true. Life goes on. I very much look forward to those forgetful days.

I live by the motto ‘make every moment count’ and today, those words mean more than ever. I own a permanent smile living by the sea has gifted me, a smile no one can erase. If you love the sea like I do, don’t be afraid to live right next to it. I’m living proof that the rewards far outweigh the financial risk and temporary inconveniences.


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