Jimmy Johnson in pain over Irma’s damage.
TAVERNIER – The dock is listing. The water main is broke. The big tiki hut sits on the ground, its thick poles shattered.
“That’s where we’d sit and talk about all the fish we caught,” Jimmy Johnson says.
The pool has six feet of sand in it. A car has sand up to its fender. And that shovel by the front door?
“Had to dig out the sand to get in the house,” he says.
The former Miami Dolphins and University of Miami football coach looks around Thursday morning at his slice of paradise, six wooded acres in Tavernier that dead-end into the Atlantic Ocean. And he sees Hurricane Irma everywhere.
The saltwater pond? It’s destroyed, a moray eel floating dead in it. The ice machine that sat on the docks? It’s 200 feet up the driveway.
Electric lines are down, a small boat sits in the woods, and clumps of seaweed are strewn across the property like dirty laundry in a teenager’s room.
“I spent 20 years getting this place just how we dreamed it,” he says. “And for it all to be gone in a day …”
He stops for the third time this morning and turns away, wiping his eyes.
“Give me a minute,” he says.
His wife, Rhonda, burst into tears when they drove home Wednesday night upon returning from Los Angeles. And the tears haven’t stopped, for either of them — nor for anyone who loves the Keys, really.
This is what awaits the first viewing after Irma. These tears. This pain. Jimmy’s voice is the voice of a region as he stands here and says, “I can’t live here for quite some time. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Jimmy, 74, knows he’s one of the lucky ones. No one’s hurt. The structure of his house and guest house are fine. His two powerboats were moved 35 miles away to safety. He also has a place to stay in a room above his restaurant in Key Largo, Jimmy Johnson's Big Chill, which was undamaged.
Fourteen miles south of his home, the real damage starts. Authorities don’t consider it safe to let people below Mile Marker 74.
“Don’t feel sorry for me,” Jimmy says. “I can rebuild. I have the money. I feel bad for people who lost their house and don’t know what to do. Those are the ones to feel sorry for, the ones who need help right now.”
Still, this isn’t just Jimmy’s home that got punched by Irma. This is who he is. This is the dream he created. This is the oceanside heaven he bought in 1997 and made in his image. It’s where he fishes most mornings. It’s where he brings NFL executives and coaches who want his advice.
This is where as Dolphins coach he married Rhonda — right up there in the house as a busload of Dolphins players and friends who came by boat thought he was just throwing a party. The ceremony was performed quietly, with bride and groom in bathing suits, by the Dolphins’ director of security, Stu Weinstein.
They returned to the party, and Jimmy told everyone, “By the way, Rhonda and I just got married — let’s party.”
Now he has tons of sand to clear. Now he’s saying he won’t rebuild the saltwater pond. Now he can only get in his ground-floor memorabilia room through the door Irma shattered. The room is covered in sand. There’s a watermark two feet up the wall. Framed pictures and magazine covers, mostly from his football days, were knocked to the floor.
He picks up one. It was a gift from San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford when he visited — a framed quote from the writer Jacob Riis: “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at a rock perhaps a hundred times …”
He lets that sit a moment. But this isn’t a day for philosophy. It’s a day of measuring the pain. Up the driveway comes a truck with the sign “Disaster Relief Team.” This is Joe Palazzo, an electrician, called because the big generator Jimmy bought years ago isn’t working.
“Is it out of propane?” Palazzo says.
“No, we got other problems,” Jimmy says.
A minute later, Palazzo opens the home’s electrical box that sits outside. A rat has been burned to death inside it. A two-foot black snake is alive in it.
“Everyone was looking for some place to ride out the storm,” Palazzo says.
Jimmy rode it out in Los Angeles doing Fox’s football show on Sunday. He arrived at the studio at 3:30 a.m. to watch hurricane coverage. He then had photos of his property sent. That was enough for him to say he had to return home right away.
“But to get here, to see it, to…”
He turns again, wiping his eyes.
He won’t be back for Sunday’s TV show. There’s a home to start rebuilding.
“The happiest I’ve ever been in my life is right here,” Johnson says. “And it will be that way again.”
Former Dolphins and UM coach Jimmy Johnson stands in his damaged memorabilia room after Hurricane Irma.