‘This is stuff you see in war zones’

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

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

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