The Keys are open, and they would welcome and appreciate our business!
On Sept 10th, Hurricane Irma, a storm the size of Texas barreled across the Keys and up the Florida Peninsula causing havoc and devastation. The eye crossed at Big Pine, Summerland and Cudjoe Key but there was major damage all the way from Key Largo to Key West and throughout Florida as the storm continued its northern trajectory through our state. Even a full month afterwards, driving through some of the Middle and Lower Keys gives one a shocking realization of the power of what a category 4 hurricane can do. Houses, boats, cars, trailers, all shattered and tossed aside like children’s toys. There is so much cleanup and rebuilding to do, our hearts go out to those that lost loved ones, their homes, or their livelihoods.
One still sees the emergency shelters, the centers for disaster relief, Red Cross tents, FEMA trailers and the many contractors and emergency services personnel working hard to bring things back to normal. The Keys (or the Conch Republic as the residents like to declare themselves) are a resilient bunch. Many businesses with signs blown out have put out hand-painted plywood sheets stating that they are open for business. They are indeed open, and they want and need your business to get back on their feet. We encourage those that can to head out to visit and help these establishments bounce back and rebuild.
Key Largo and Key West are for the most part looking pretty much back to normal. As you get more into the heart of the Keys from Islamorada to Cudjoe Key you see a larger rebuilding effort underway. The Turtle Hospital in Marathon is open and all its patients have survived Hurricane Irma, the situation might not be the same for all of the Key deer. The National Key Deer Refuge located on Big Pine Key and No Name Key remains closed.
While we did attempt to visit some of the beaches along the way, many of these were still closed to the public. The amount of debris and the water quality after a strong storm surge are all factors. What was amazing to see was the amount of sand washed up from the beach from the surge. We had heard stories of hotels with 3 feet of sand in their lobbies. We saw graters and bulldozers working the streets to get things sorted out and we believe that the beaches will be open again soon. (At the time of writing, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at mile marker 102 has already reopened as has Oceanside and Indian Key Historic State Park off mile marker 78. There is no word yet on when Bahia Honda State Park at mile marker 36.8 and Long Key State Park at mile marker 67.4 will reopen.)
While donations to disaster relief are good, there is nothing like showing up and supporting the businesses by simply buying what they are selling. Food, t-shirts, dive trips, or whatever you like to do, make it a mini vacation! We made a long weekend of it and got to dive some great wrecks, overindulged in key lime pie and bought some new t-shirts.
We got out to a couple of famous dive sites, the Vandenberg and the Spiegel Grove. Both ships were purposely sunk to create artificial reefs. They are actually the 2nd and 3rd largest artificial reefs in the world and make for exciting dives. Both were relatively unaffected by the storm. For more on these:
We ate at some of our favorite places, bought souvenirs, hung out at Mallory Square, and talked to people about how they made it through the hurricane and how they coped afterwards. Our dive guide was happy to get the work and earn some extra cash while having a great time diving. The dive operator he usually works for can’t go out at the moment because their dock was damaged by Irma. One of our waiters at a local restaurant shared with us that he rode out the hurricane in a small house in the direct path of the eye of the hurricane. They wanted to let the dog out and when they tried to open the door, the wind blew it off it’s hinges and they were trying to hold it in place to drill screws into to it to hold it shut. In the aftermath, he and 5 others lived in a house with no electricity and water. Yet, he was serving us with a big smile grateful to be working.
While in Key West we also took a local charter seaplane out to Fort Jefferson. The Dry Tortugas is undoubtedly the most difficult national park to get to but really nice to see and worth the effort. The flight itself is incredible offering a bird’s eye view of the Marquesas Keys and Dry Tortugas islands, absolutely mesmerizing! Looking down at the ocean below spotting turtles and sharks, their shapes unmistakable. Seeing sunken ships including the Spanish Galion that contained over half a billion dollars worth of gold coins and jewels. Some still find the occasional emerald… perhaps we should go.
Of course we couldn’t leave the Keys without stopping by our favorite museum the History of Diving Museum. We also had to check on the famous six-toed cats at the Ernest Hemingway House, and can report that they are fine.
Overall, it was a wonderful weekend and we would encourage all our readers to head out and help support the community as it rebuilds. The Florida Keys is a wonderful place to visit whether it’s a day trip, a mini vacation or more. There are a lot of fun things to do and the establishments are open and they would welcome your business.