BIG PINE KEY, Fla. — The last wave of Hurricane Irma evacuees returned Sunday to the southernmost stretch of the Florida Keys, an emotional homecoming to witness damage in the area hit hardest a week earlier.
The worst destruction came south of the famous Seven Mile Bridge, where Elizabeth Taylor-Martinez looked in shock as she traveled to the stilt home she and husband Hector hoped to retire to one day on Big Pine Key.
“When we first entered the Keys it wasn’t bad, but as soon as we crossed Seven Mile Bridge, we saw a car flipped across the road and a house ripped off its foundation ” said Martinez, a councilwoman and Miami middle school counselor.
Relief came as she arrived at their property strewn with debris and other peoples’ jet skis and boats, but otherwise intact.
“Thank God our insurance company threatened to cancel us if we didn’t put on a metal roof,” she said.
Sadness welled up at the sight of the damaged homes of her less fortunate neighbors: “Oh my God. It’s enough to make you cry. This is stuff you see in war zones, not here.”
Then the Martinezes did what a surprising number of Big Pine residents who stayed on the island have been doing for the past week after Irma passed. They got to work.
In this part of the Middle and Lower Keys, where Irma landed its biggest punch on Florida, those residents returning, like others who rode out the storm, are accustomed to getting by on their own.
The storm wiped out power, water, cell and sewer services, which workers have been restoring bit by bit over the past few days. Monroe County officials kept this area closed for so long in hopes of avoiding a major health and safety crisis with such limited services.
Many who left Lower Keys homes are waiting for power to return, which could be as early as Wednesday. Others like Eric Chas are waiting to hear not only if they still have homes to come back to, but also jobs.
“Hello?” Martinez’ phone rang. It was Chas, his neighbor, asking how things looked. A wall had been ripped off the side of the house, leaving a yawning hole.
“I could see from NOAA satellite photos that we at least still had a home with a roof,” said Chas, a dive captain at Bahia Honda State Park who evacuated to Tennessee and later Connecticut, with his wife and four-year-old son, to stay with family. “I don’t want to take our son back to that mess until power is restored. We’re putting him in day care here.”
Ravaged as the Lower Keys are, things aren’t quite as bad for the returnees as they would have been had they come back sooner, thanks to their stay-behind neighbors who rolled up their sleeves well before reinforcements arrived.
Richard Tabacco, a generator repairman for Check Electric, lined up generators and cans of heavy-duty polyethylene in his yard, making sure his neighbors and family had an air conditioned room to sleep in.
Despite the devastation all around them, the residents of Big Pine Key are vowing to come together and rebuild so they continue to enjoy the community they love so much.
Residents who stayed even took care of arriving federal personnel. One loaned a shade tarp to FEMA workers encamped at Big Pine Key National Refuge where they handed out water and food. Another pulled strings to get a porta-potty delivered. Tabacco brought them hot coffee and milk.
“We have to be a strong community because we have to help us,” said Tiffany Meyer, a server at Bistro 31 who’s helping her employer clean up so he can open faster.
Meyer stayed on-island because one of her dogs was about to give birth.
She and her fiancé and their three Labrador-Mastiffs rode out Irma piled on their bed while Mattie, the neighbor’s pig, hid in the bathroom. Ten puppies were born the next day, each named for a hurricane.
“I get emotional talking about what it’s been like for us on Big Pine after the storm,” she said. “The support took a while to reach us. Friday was the first day people came to help, almost a week after the hurricane. That’s a long time for ground zero.”
As Publix trucks sped past their island to Key West, stay-behinds who’d lost their cars walked three miles to Port Pine for supplies and three miles back pushing a cart, she said.
“Key West is about the money. The support goes to them first,” agreed Tom Keene, a U.S. Coast Guard retiree who sat through Irma on his kitchen counter watching the water rise and hoping it wouldn’t rise higher.
“Big Pine, Ramrod, the Torches, all of us got slammed, and we just Thursday got FEMA,” he said, referring to other nearby Keys.
Harvey and Jose, after their mom held off labor until after Hurricane Irma hit the Big Pine Key the area destroying most of the homes in the community. “It’s easy for them to feel they’re on the smelly end of the stick because they were the worst impacted,” Rice said. “The reality is they’ve had an influx of support. There was just no way to get support down their immediately without fyling through the hurricane.”
The commissioner called FEMA’s response in the Keys “probably the fastest response to any disaster on record.”
But residents, particularly in the Lower Keys, should be prepared for primitive conditions for some time, he said
Rice himself returned for the first time Sunday to a duplex he owns in Marathon that will have to be bulldozed. Estimating $200,000 from insurance plus another $200,000 to rebuild, there was no way he would be renting the place for $1,200 a month as he’d been doing, he said. It would be more like $2,000 a month.
Residents are making do, enjoying even the smallest signs of progress.
On Saturday, a parade of helping government hands sent a water truck, ice truck and care packages of cookies and first aid kits to neighborhoods where those who have been here since the storm passed continued clean up.
“We don’t have to leave anymore,” said Tabacco’s wife Lisa.