Middle Keys In Florida Still In Recovery Mode Post Hurricane
Editor’s Note: Katie Atkins is a former city editor at The Post-Journal and current reporter for the Keys Weekly in the Florida Keys. Aug. 8, was the two-year anniversary of her move there.
Around a year ago at this time I was writing about the comeback of a Middle Keys marina after a major fire had burned most of it down, including hundreds of lobster traps and a home. The sadness on the face of one fisherman who sadly held the only thing left to his name, a buoy, was burned into my memory.
Little did this island know a storm of epic proportions was headed for it, and the hardships that washed over the marina workers would happen again — not only to them once more, but to their friends, family and beyond.
That look of sadness was something I became familiar with and felt myself, although I was among the lucky.
It’s been nearly a year since the day I stood in my tiny apartment and packed up what I absolutely could not live without. I returned to my home just the way I left it (kind of) — minus my car.
I’ve written about Irma locally nonstop for the last, long 11 months. There are three main topics here I report, or have reported on, consistently.
Most visitors tell me they are wowed by the recovery. It almost looks back to normal and the beaches in Marathon are in better shape than they were pre-storm. Tourism is on the rebound. Real estate is through the roof, contrary to what most of us predicted. It’s a seller’s market.
Money: Reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency still haven’t come to local governments. They’re “on the way” but at most city council meetings when the time comes for an update on money received, there is only one thing to say: Nothing yet.
Canals: Debris still fills them. Take a look around your living room, bedroom and backyard. Multiples of everything you see have finally settled at the bottom of 103 canals. After more than one failed contract, cleanup is set to start this month.
Affordable housing is scant to say the least. I saw a one-bedroom, one-bath for rent last week in Marathon at a cool $1,800 a month. I thank my landlord for only raising the rent one time. As you can imagine, the workforce has declined drastically. Countywide, 77 teachers have left the Keys since the end of the school year (That happens every year, though). There are still 18 vacancies to fill before the school year starts.
The county Sheriff’s Office has about 50 unfilled positions and no jail in the Middle Keys due to hurricane damage and lack of staff.
By now, the tale of Irma is long forgotten by people far removed from these islands. Worse things followed for other parts of our beautiful country. When grouped into all the other natural disasters that have happened since (volcanoes, more wildfires, flooding across the nation), Irma could be forgotten. There are still Keys residents unaware of the damage done in parts of their own county. In the areas around where Irma made landfall though, we are reminded every day.
I never imagined, a year after the hurricane had long blown over us, she’d rear her ugly face again and again. I have heard and told the stories of people who lost it all more than I can count.
When I come across the photos in my phone from those days, I am overcome with feelings of disgust. The only thing that kept us going at the time was a positive attitude, which for many (myself included) diminished fast. I can’t believe my own blind naivete when I said over and over again things would be “better soon.” At this point in time, they are. Others are still fighting their own battles, so I try to remember every day not to take things personally from people who are a still a little snappy.
And for those of us who went through that horrible experience together and came out OK on the other side – we have some sort of unbreakable bond now. It brought this tiny community out in the middle of the ocean together in ways I never expected.
On the one-year Sept. 10 anniversary, I plan on uncorking two bottles of wine – one red and one white – found in my friend Eddy’s destroyed trailer park on the ocean-side of the island. Maybe I’ll even do it on the beach where I now spend most Saturdays appreciating the view. I quit my second job in order to do so.
I’m highly doubtful about the wine’s flavor, but that’s beside the point. It’ll be a testament to the last 12 months for Marathon: Withstood disaster and got a little smelly, but still intact, still standing.