‘This is stuff you see in war zones’

There’s some re­lief, some sad­ness as Keys res­i­dents come home

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Patricia Borns

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 Tay­lorMartine­z looked in shock as she trav­eled to the stilt home she and her 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, which was strewn with de­bris and other peo­ple’s 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 re­stored 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 safe- ty cri­sis amid such lim­ited ser­vices.

Many who left Lower Keys homes waited for power to re­turn, which could be as early as Wed­nes­day. Oth­ers, such as Eric Chas, waited to hear not only whether they still had homes to come back to but also jobs.

“Hello?” Hec­tor Martinez’s 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 (Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion) 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 4-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.

Res­i­dents who stayed even took care of ar­riv­ing fed­eral per­son­nel. One loaned a shade tarp to Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency 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 helped her em­ployer clean up so he could 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 lost their cars walked

3 miles to Port Pine for sup­plies and 3 miles back push­ing a cart, she said.

“Key West is about the money. The sup­port goes to them first,” said 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.

Mon­roe County Com­mis­sioner David Rice said he un­der­stands how Keene and other res­i­dents in the hard­est hit area feel, but he dis­agreed.

“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 there im­me­di­ately with­out fly­ing through the hur­ri­cane.”

The com­mis­sioner called FEMA’s re­sponse in the Keys “prob­a­bly the fastest re­sponse to any dis­as­ter on record.”

Res­i­dents, par­tic­u­larly in the Lower Keys, should be pre­pared for prim­i­tive con­di­tions for some time, he said

Rice 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, he said there was no way he would be rent­ing the place for $1,200 a month as he’d been do­ing. It would be more like $2,000 a month.

Res­i­dents are mak­ing do, en­joy­ing even the small­est signs of progress.

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 to clean up.

PHO­TOS BY KELLY JOR­DAN, USA TO­DAY

Ryan O’Brien’s home was among those dev­as­tated on Big Pine Key when Hur­ri­cane Irma fo­cused its fury on the Florida com­mu­nity. Res­i­dents are com­ing back to see what’s left.

“It’s enough to make you cry,” El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor-Martinez says of the dam­age done to her neigh­bors’ homes.

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