It takes a special breed of cat to settle in the Florida Keys.
The slivers of land atop an ancient coral reef hold a mixture of hedonism and high water, luring anglers and divers, bikers and burnouts, pirates and professionals down US 1 to forget about life for a weekend … or forever. Depending on your point of view, it is a road to paradise or a highway to hell.
With flippers and fishing poles poking out of a top-down rental, I’d chased sunsets over the 42 bridges of the Overseas Highway a half dozen times over the years but had never seen the darker side of the tropical ocean’s split personality. Key West resident Ernest Hemingway described it as masculine and feminine. “La Mar” can give you an afternoon in crystal clear heaven but “El Mar” can flood your house and sink your boat.
Irma was El Mar on steroids. The storm laid bare those two sides of nature, and the human nature of those who live in one of the most vulnerable neighborhoods in America.
As the storm pounded Cuba, the independent, defiant streak of the Conch Republic was on display. On Duval Street in Key West, residents scoffed at the mandatory evacuation orders and shared personal lists of storms survived and every strand of stick-it-out logic from “I don’t want to run out of gas in the Everglades” to “I have to be here to protect my boat.”
At Snappers on Key Largo, a dozen revelers sat at the Turtle Club bar and watched Irma’s angry satellite swirl on TV while raising Rum Runners to all the “premature evacuators.”
But when Irma reached Category 5 and took dead aim for the Keys, the attitude began to change. Some of the “never-leavers” I met on that Thursday were packing the car on Friday, but a handful of old salts at Curtis Marina on Key Largo remained, gamely adjusting the lines on their boats between beers as Irma’s winds began to scream.
Sunday afternoon, after the worst had passed, producer Lawrence Crook, photojournalist Rod Griola and I ventured out from our sturdy Key Largo sanctuary and it was quickly evident that “bayside” had fared much better than “oceanside” in the Upper Keys.
The destruction of Snappers, that bar where we’d filmed, was stunning. Our hearts broke seeing how the storm surge had laid waste to a mobile-home park on Plantation Key.
If the harsh side of nature was this severe 60 miles north of the eye of the hurricane, what had happened to the Lower Keys? With power out and cell towers useless, a gasoline shortage and the likelihood of broken bridges, there was no easy way for to find out. Until a twist of fate, and the kindness of strangers came to us.
An angel on Instagram heard my laments over our nearly dry gas tank and directed us to take a few gallons from her father’s shed. While there, Tiffany McNew pulled up. “Know anyone with a boat?” we asked. She smiled. A half hour later we were shaking hands with her boyfriend, Captain Brandon “Bam Bam” Jimenez, who’d earned his nickname as a high school linebacker and makes a living chasing billfish and tarpon aboard his precious Sea Spirit.
That night we loaded our cameras onto the 43-footer and the next morning, motored into the unknown.
We found wrecked boats everywhere, clogging the canals and littering the mangroves. Crossing under Long Key Viaduct, fresh water rained from a busted pipe and on Marathon Key, the first proof of life came from the rugs and towels drying on the railings of the battered Seapointe condominiums.
On shore, William “Dub” Richardson had more than earned his title of caretaker, hanging Old Glory from an upper balcony to declare life went on, even as three feet of sand filled the lobby.
There was the resilience, the indomitable spirit. We exhaled.
Back on board the Sea Spirit, Captain Bam Bam stared at the horizon with intensity. I knew some of the risks he was taking to help us — the snarls of power lines and lobster traps that could snag our propeller, the floating roofs and broken reefs that could punch a hole in the hull. All this with the US Coast Guard nowhere in sight.
A strange boat was coming up fast and he called out to Tiffany. “Babe, can you throw me my blue bag?” With the Sea Spirit full of precious fuel, food and water, he was taking no chances and was reaching for his guns.
But the strange boat passed with a friendly wave and, for a moment, the tension broke.
Then, on a stop on Cook Island, near Big Pine and the Torch Keys, the fickle devastation took our breath away.
Hermit crabs scurried over huge drifts of broken deepwater coral piled on the beach, proof that the vital and vulnerable reef had taken a massive hit.
In a setting right out of a screen saver, nearly every house was split open or heaved off its foundation. But in one fisherman’s cottage, every bottle on the bar sat unmoved.
The next morning brought a glorious sunrise, but with the taunt of “NO SERVICE” on every phone, we still feared the worst in Key West.
Our worry was blessedly unfounded. The most populous spot in the chain survived with mostly tree and boat damage.
While we braced for dark desperation, nearly every local offered us food and water and the only plea for humanitarian aid came from a woman who cried out, “Do you guys have a wine opener we can borrow?”
Irma will join Donna, Wilma and the Great Labor Day Storm of ’35 on the list of meteorological greatest hits down here. The disruption to tourism and the destruction of the reef will cost untold billions. Blessedly, few people died (let’s hear it for building codes and evacuation orders) and it will take more than a Category 4 to snuff the spirit of the Conchs.
Measurements at the Southernmost Point show that the ocean has risen 9 inches in the last century and in a rapidly warming word, El Mar will only get higher, stronger and meaner. But if Irma is any indication, the Conch Republic will never retreat, come hell or high water.