Af­ter Irma, the Conchs in the Keys grit it out

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEVE HEN­DRIX

stock island, fla. — Lynn Her­nan­dez is a “Conch,” a fourth­gen­er­a­tion na­tive of the Florida Keys, and she knows from ex­pe­ri­ence that the hard part isn’t the hur­ri­cane; it’s what hap­pens now.

Four days af­ter Irma dumped wrack and wreck­age on this tiny island, its res­i­dents were deep into the blis­ter­ingly hot wait for food, elec­tric­ity and wa­ter. The wait for nor­mal. “Peo­ple are a lit­tle crazy now. It’s scary,” Her­nan­dez said, sit­ting on the porch of her un­cle’s semiru­ined frame house two blocks from the boat­yard where most of her fam­ily make their liv­ing as fish­er­men. It was the same af­ter Wilma, af­ter Ge­orges, af­ter Andrew (she was preg­nant for that one), af­ter all seven of the hur­ri­canes she has rid­den out here on the Straits of Florida. Be­cause that is what Conchs do.

She had her face in one hand and a warm Bud Light in the other, a lit­tle beery and a lit­tle teary re­call­ing the post-Irma trau­mas: the two men she saw get into a knife fight near the ma­rina, the old man they found dead in his apart­ment down the street, the boy who came around sell­ing jew­elry soon af­ter re­ports

of loot­ing from the Zales store across the bridge.

And sud­denly, trauma was upon her again. She looked up as the nor­mal back­ground bark­ing of dogs reached a frenzy, then a shat­ter­ing scream: “No, they’re killing her!” she heard.

Her­nan­dez ran from the porch and saw two big dogs that had been left be­hind by neigh­bors who heeded evac­u­a­tion or­ders ahead of Irma’s ar­rival. The dogs had been mak­ing a racket since the storm, and now they had got­ten loose and were leap­ing around a young woman and the small white dog she was try­ing to pro­tect. The lit­tle an­i­mal’s blood was al­ready stain­ing the front of her Key West High School shirt.

“Oh, no; oh, no,” the girl said af­ter by­standers chased off the at­tack­ers. “She’s dy­ing.”

Her­nan­dez looked, saw that the girl was right and hugged her.

“It’s not your fault,” she said. “They’re in sur­vival mode.”

Her­nan­dez sat, cradling the fad­ing an­i­mal.

“It’s not the storm. It’s the af­ter­math,” she said, her voice still shak­ing. “Hon­estly, I don’t mind the wind.”

‘What I re­ally want is ice’

The Florida Keys, a bead string of cause­way-con­nected is­lands dan­gling 113 miles into the ocean from the tip of the state, took the brunt of Irma’s land­fall when its eye­wall rolled right over the ar­chi­pel­ago. Be­tween Is­lam­orada and Stock Island — which abuts Key West — there are swaths of dra­matic wreck­age, mostly where the wind and wa­ter tossed around trail­ers, campers and boats.

But the con­struc­tion codes in place since Hur­ri­cane Andrew’s 1992 dev­as­ta­tion of the state have hard­ened Florida’s homes, even here in one of the most vul­ner­a­ble en­vi­ron­ments. Most of the af­fected struc­tures looked dam­aged but not de­stroyed. Once the tons of de­bris are gone, the power grid re­strung and hun­dreds of bent-but-not-bro­ken roofs re­paired, the Keys will be up and wait­ing for the next trop­i­cal tem­pest.

Her­nan­dez’s turquoise block home on Stock Island is one that was bruised but liv­able; Irma twisted part of her me­tal roof into rib­bons. That’s fine, that’s what she ex­pected. Fixing a roof is bet­ter than leav­ing your home be­hind and be­ing stuck in the an­gry line of cars at Mile Marker 74, where of­fi­cers still won’t let evac­uees back in.

“Conchs don’t leave,” said Cas­san­dra Greene, who was out front of her home three blocks away, grilling the last of the pork chops she packed in cool­ers be­fore the storm.

“The Keys al­ways come through,” said her hus­band, Jimmy Greene, a wa­ter and sewer worker on Key West who grew up here. He was pet­ting the ema­ci­ated stray dog that took up with them dur­ing the storm. “We stay, and then we help each other out.”

In the wake of Irma, the Keys are like a ship that was nearly swamped by break­ing waves, shed­ding the wa­ter, strug­gling to right it­self.

It was get­ting busier. Hos­pi­tal staff, util­ity work­ers, other “es­sen­tial” per­son­nel, were be­ing let back in. Sup­ply trucks loaded with gen­er­a­tors, por­ta­ble toi­lets and tele­phone poles filled south­bound U.S. Route 1. With boats still on some side streets and most of the fallen trees still ly­ing where Irma dropped them, the Lower Keys were crawl­ing with res­i­dents, re­pair crews and re­lief groups.

One was giv­ing away gaso­line at the post of­fice on Big Pine Key. Na­tional Guard mem­bers handed out emer­gency ra­tions, wa­ter and ice at Su­gar­loaf Ele­men­tary on Su­gar­loaf Key. A line stretched around the Win­nDixie, which was let­ting peo­ple in 10 at a time for five min­utes of cash-only shop­ping.

On Stock Island, a uniquely Keys mix of work­ing-class trail­ers and mod­est va­ca­tion homes, res­i­dents were track­ing give­aways via the gen­er­a­tor-pow­ered FM sta­tion, 104.1. Cell­phone cov­er­age was lim­ited to the reach of emer­gency tow­ers; ca­ble TV and In­ter­net ser­vice were pre-Irma mem­o­ries, along with air con­di­tion­ing and fresh food.

“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen, but ev­ery day it feels a lit­tle more like nor­mal,” said Her­nan­dez’s neigh­bor, Kevin Ed­wards, 41, a mil­i­tary jet me­chanic who was al­lowed to re­turn Tues­day.

Ed­wards spent two days in 90-de­gree heat clear­ing a fi­cus tree off the front of his house and a Brazil­ian pep­per tree off the back, go­ing from 234 pounds to 219 in the process. When of­fi­cials an­nounced a two-hour win­dow to flush toi­lets and bathe with wa­ter that still can’t be con­sumed, he took a 45-minute shower, un­til the wa­ter backed up in his sink.

“The sys­tem’s not there yet,” he said.

A Mon­roe County sher­iff’s car pulled slowly down the street, forc­ing a rooster to scam­per to the side. “If you need food or wa­ter, go to the Tom Thumb park­ing lot,” the of­fi­cer in­toned through a loud­speaker.

“We’ve pretty much run out of food,” Her­nan­dez said when the car passed her house. An empty box la­beled “Emer­gency Ra­tion Meals” sat on a pile of reek­ing sea­weed in her yard. “What I re­ally want is ice, some­thing cold to drink.”

‘Now look at that’

Down on the cor­ner, with the sun start­ing to set, Ed Har­ris put a fi­nal pile of branches at the curb. At 83, he’d stuck through many a storm, but this was the first he went through with­out Phyl­lis. She died in July, just shy of their 60th an­niver­sary.

His house, mod­ern, built to code on eight-foot block piers, was un­dam­aged. He had looked down at the wa­ter wash­ing over his yard from the lonely safety of his porch.

“My wife hated all these stairs,” he said softly. “I don’t know. Ev­ery­thing has changed. Ev­ery­thing.”

At that minute, Jimmy Greene walked by, his own dog Roxie on a leash. Har­ris called hello and thanked Greene for a fa­vor he’d done him ear­lier in the day: tak­ing his car to get filled up at the one sta­tion on the island with gas.

“That line was 60 cars long,” Greene said, shak­ing his head.

Greene walked down Cross Street, past the fences crushed by the storm surge and the piles of rot­ting garbage, past the “Loot­ers Will Be Shot” sign painted on the ply­wood still cov­er­ing the win­dow of a pink cot­tage.

“Some of these houses, where they didn’t clear out the fridge be­fore they evac­u­ated,” he said sniff­ing, “ev­ery­thing’s start­ing to stink.” He stopped. “Now look at that.” It was a trailer with its front end blown off. In the now ope­nair kitchen stood a woman putting dishes neatly away, as though she had just fin­ished a meal.

She was Jac­que­line Rodriguez, a maid at the Dou­ble­Tree Hil­ton on Key West. She and her hus­band, who took refuge at an­other mo­tel dur­ing the storm, were do­ing what they could to feel bet­ter about the fact that their home was a to­tal loss.

“We’re alive,” she said in Span­ish. It was all she could muster.

Across the street, a man came out of his low-slung, branch-cov­ered house the only way he could: re­mov­ing the warped front door from its hinges, step­ping out and then putting it back.

He was Michael Knoles, a re­moval tech­ni­cian for the Key West mor­tu­ary. With­out work­ing phones, po­lice had for days been com­ing to knock on his busted front door when they needed a body col­lected — from the hos­pi­tal, from houses, from boats.

The of­fi­cial death toll from Irma has been re­mark­ably low, a com­bi­na­tion of peo­ple get­ting out of the way of the storm and a bit of luck as the storm weak­ened and went in­land. But lo­cals say the peo­ple dy­ing since the storm could have been af­fected

“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen, but ev­ery day it feels a lit­tle more like nor­mal.” Kevin Ed­wards, 41, a Florida Keys res­i­dent who was al­lowed to re­turn Tues­day af­ter evac­u­at­ing

by the stress.

“A lot of heart at­tacks,” Greene said. “Folks are run­ning out of their medicine.” “It’s been busy,” Knoles said. Greene, who was hold­ing a can of Heineken, looked at Knoles, who was hold­ing a can of Glory Foods col­lard greens.

“You got a can opener for that?” Greene asked.

“That’s what I’m look­ing for,” Knoles said.

“Got one at the house,” Greene said, start­ing down the block in the last rays of the trop­i­cal sun­set. “Come on.”

MAG­GIE STE­BER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Stock Island, Fla., res­i­dent Jac­que­line Rodriguez or­ga­nizes what is left of her kitchen Thurs­day. In its dev­as­ta­tion of the Keys, Hur­ri­cane Irma blew the roof off Rodriguez’s home and knocked down her walls. Res­i­dents of the Keys, the coun­try’s hard­est-hit area, are sort­ing through the start of re­cov­ery with lim­ited food, wa­ter and elec­tric­ity.

MAG­GIE STE­BER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Ed Har­ris, 83, stands in the yard of his Stock Island home, which sits on block piers and made it through the storm mostly un­scathed.

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