Lynn Hernandez is a “Conch,” a fourth-generation 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 semi-ruined 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.”
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 Winn-Dixie, 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.”
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 open-air 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 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.”