Par­adise in pieces

Hur­ri­cane Irma did more than dam­age homes and wash out roads across the in­de­pen­dent-minded Florida Keys. It wiped out dreams.

Times Colonist - - Life - JA­SON DEAREN

BIG PINE KEY, Florida — Tim Stan­ton emerged from his ru­ined work­shop off High­way 1 on Big Pine Key and col­lapsed to the ground, his sun­burned, tearcov­ered face con­torted in an­guish.

The skele­ton-thin 58-year-old with long, stringy grey hair sat un­der an old gas sta­tion awning, over­come by his per­sonal loss in this idyl­lic place that was one of the hard­est hit by Hur­ri­cane Irma. A tree fell on the trailer where he lives, and his shop was de­stroyed, along with an old BMW con­vert­ible he had just bought with saved money.

As with many peo­ple who drop out of more tra­di­tional lives to come to the Keys and forge their own path, Stan­ton moved here eight years ago from Penn­syl­va­nia with plans to cob­ble to­gether a liv­ing based on his own ideas and en­trepreneur­ship. First he sold fresh-pressed lime and sug­ar­cane drinks on the road­side, then gained a lo­cal name for craft­ing ukule­les out of old cigar boxes and worked in a fruit grove. He man­aged to stitch to­gether an in­come in one of the most ex­pen­sive places in the U.S. and was just get­ting by when Irma roared into town.

“It’s great here if you’re rich, but for the rest of us it’s a strug­gle,” said a sob­bing Stan­ton, who goes by the nick­name “Ukulele Tim.” Now, “it’s go­ing to be a while be­fore it’s par­adise again. I had just scraped up enough to buy a car. De­stroyed.”

Those who live here know the bar­gain: turquoise wa­ters and pow­dery sand, but also hur­ri­canes. Still, lo­cals con­sider them­selves hardy souls who are will­ing to gam­ble on es­cap­ing a di­rect hit. The last hur­ri­cane to make land­fall here was Charley in 2004. Irma de­stroyed at least 25 per cent of homes on the Keys, ac­cord­ing to FEMA, and badly dam­aged sys­tems for de­liv­er­ing water and elec­tric­ity.

The storm’s sav­agery as­saults the senses. The sour, fishy stench of sea­weed thrown ashore by Irma fills the air. The main road is dot­ted with dead igua­nas smashed by work trucks and first re­spon­ders. Sirens wail con­stantly from emer­gency crews rac­ing from one end of the Keys to the next. All around is de­bris and ruin.

For Stan­ton and other res­i­dents, the re­al­ity of the task be­fore them is start­ing to take root. And it’s too much to bear.

“I feel so beat now. It’s just in­sult to in­jury,” he said.

Across the road from Stan­ton’s shop, homes and trail­ers are top­pled. Elec­tric­ity is out, and a boil­wa­ter no­tice is in ef­fect. A mo­bile cell­phone tower was erected Thurs­day, bring­ing the first com­mu­ni­ca­tions for some who had been cut off from their fam­i­lies since the storm.

Pa­trick Gar­vey drove into the neigh­bour­hood, his car full of meals-ready-to-eat and cases of water from a dis­tri­bu­tion hub run by the Florida Na­tional Guard nearby. He sent his wife and twin daugh­ters to Brazil to be with fam­ily and stayed on Big Pine dur­ing the storm.

Like Stan­ton, Gar­vey gave up his pre­vi­ous life to come to Big Pine Key and forge his own path, in­spired by fa­mous Keys icon­o­clasts such as Ernest Hem­ing­way and trea­sure hunter Mel Fisher, who re­flected the is­lands’ live-byy­our-own-rules men­tal­ity. He bought the Keys’ only trop­i­cal fruit grove and spent six years lov­ingly restor­ing and re­plant­ing it.

The 41-year-old for­mer Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies em­ployee drained his re­tire­ment sav­ings and put ev­ery­thing into the grove. He had help from Stan­ton, who worked there part-time, and others in the small com­mu­nity. He had started get­ting cus­tomers for his un­usual, lo­cally grown trop­i­cal fruits such as the Abiu, ly­chee, durian and others cul­ti­vated nowhere else in the U.S.

“There’s a pi­o­neer­ing spirit in the Keys. It’s go­ing against the grain,” Gar­vey said.

On Thurs­day, his foot­steps made a crunch­ing sound from the dry, dead veg­e­ta­tion of his on­cethriv­ing en­ter­prise called the Gri­mal Grove. The trees, some planted decades ago by an ex­per­i­men­tal grower named Adolf Gri­mal, had been bowled over by the storm or were killed by the salt­wa­ter storm surge.

“I don’t have any­thing now,” Gar­vey said look­ing around. He had been sleep­ing out­side since the storm and was wrestling men­tally with whether he could start again. He had been scrap­ing by be­fore the storm, but was able to live cheaply in the neigh­bour­hood of trail­ers and mo­bile homes that was now laid to waste.

“Af­ford­able hous­ing here is trail­ers. And if you lose your trailer, you can’t put an­other one on the lot, ac­cord­ing to the lo­cal build­ing code. They were grand­fa­thered in,” Gar­vey said. “It’s tough for the work­ing class. There’s a high cost of liv­ing, but low wages.”

Gar­vey hopped in his car and drove across the street to offer food and water to Stan­ton and some others who stuck the storm out.

Many neigh­bours fled Big Pine and the Keys to go north, and res­i­dents still were not be­ing let back in un­til the water sys­tem and elec­tric­ity could be at least par­tially re­stored. At a check­point near Lower Mate­cumbe Key, an of­fi­cer said that ev­ery fourth or fifth car was some­one try­ing to get back in, and they were all be­ing turned away.

With the hot sun burn­ing and the air thick with hu­mid­ity, the two men looked at each other with sad­ness as they dis­cussed ev­ery­thing they lost.

They hope FEMA and others will come through for them and al­low their busi­nesses and homes to be re­built.

Gar­vey said he would try to re­store the grove, hop­ing the com­mu­nity that ral­lied behind him to help get it started will do so again.

For Stan­ton, re­build­ing seemed a dream as faded as his on­cei­dyl­lic Keys.

“I’m not a lucky guy, and chances are I’m not go­ing to qual­ify for all that FEMA aid and stuff. And at least be­fore, when things went [bad], I could go to the lit­tle grove across the street. It was a lit­tle slice of heaven,” he said through tears.

ROB O’NEAL, THE KEY WEST CIT­I­ZEN, VIA AP

Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma: The com­mu­nity of Big Pine Key, Florida (pop­u­la­tion 5,032 as of the 2002 U.S. cen­sus).

ALAN DIAZ, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Tim Stan­ton re­counts the loss of his pos­ses­sions due to Hur­ri­cane Irma, in Big Pine Key, Florida. “It’s great here if you’re rich, but for the rest of us it’s a strug­gle,” he says.

ALAN DIAZ, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pa­trick Gar­vey at his farm: “I don’t have any­thing now.”

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