10 Things to “Know Before You Go” to Key West After Hurricane Irma
Visitors are starting to trickle back into Key West after Hurricane Irma swept through the islands just one month ago. The boil water alerts are over, and we’re no longer joking about building fires with pieces of driftwood from smashed boats and adding in the tears of the homeless because there’s no electric and no one’s brought a tarp for the roof. Mostly, people have cable back, at least a good part of the time. It’s getting better, and as we’ve been told, Key West is open now.
The TDC (Tourist Development Council) is pouring millions into ad campaigns to draw folks back and make it seem like nothing happened (it happened, what you see on tv now and what you see when you get here will be worlds of difference). Local businesses are working around the clock to make repairs, and the local government is working hard to clear the debris from the most popular tourist venues. Here’s my local take on what visitors need to know before they go.
Battered But Not Broken
For those of you who don’t know, a Category 4 Hurricane named Irma slammed into the Florida Keys on September 10 and then pretty much wiped out a lot of the rest of the state to one degree or another. Key Largo and Key West were spared the worst of it, but we’re talking degrees of awful, not spared from damage. No one escaped completely, and a lot of people lost everything. There are piles of debris and remnants of people’s lives piled on US1 and the side streets.
Monroe County, its residents and volunteers from all over the world have done a tremendous amount of work in the past month to clean up Key West and have it ready for the kickoff event to “the season,” Fantasy Fest. But if you wander too far from Duval Street, you’ll see battered homes and tarps on a roof and piles of fronds. Trees were uprooted. It’s way better than it was, but it’s not perfect. A lot of money and a lot of time has been spent clearing the way and sprucing it up so that businesses that depend on tourists can come back strong. But it’s been a tough month, and it would be good to remember that when you come to visit.
And yeah, the roosters are alright…
Get a Tetanus Shot, Pack Hibiclens, and Bring Band-Aids
No, I’m not kidding. While we’ve tried hard to clear the debris and clean up, the fact is that the islands were battered by 100+ mph winds for about 48 hours and lots of stuff went flying. Then there was the storm surge. Things blew off houses, boats crashed into the streets and sewage systems failed. And then there was the debris removal/relocation. Add to that we’ve had lots of rain, high winds and king tides in the weeks since Irma. It’s hot here, too, remember? Days in the 90s? No ability to spray for mosquitos who are bite-y. It’s a breeding ground for troublesome infections right now.
Pack one of THESE. I have three. One in the house, one in the car, one in my handbag (and that was before the storm and just because we live here):
The reality of what all of this means is that it’s not unthinkable that while you’re out for a pleasant stroll, or playing on the beach, or marching in a parade, or swimming in the ocean or bay, you could get cut on something that’s not so clean, and that would be not so good right now. Normally a cut would be a cut, but after a catastrophic storm and its aftermath, there’s lots of staph (aka MRSA), and we’re seeing that. We’re also concerned about vibrio. So, make sure you’ve had a tetanus shot in the last 6 years, and pack a bottle of Hibiclens, some antibiotic ointment and some Band-Aids. Nothing will ruin your trip faster than having to go to an Urgent Care or Lower Keys Medical Center if you do get hurt.
Also, exercise some sense about swimming. The beaches just re-opened and many state parks remain closed. Most locals probably won’t go in the ocean at the beach until after New Year’s. In the canals? We might give it a whole season or year. There was a lot of waste (including human waste, aka poop), chemicals and junk in that water, and we’re not sure what remains.
My advice? If you want to swim in the ocean, go out with a locally-owned charter that will take you far enough offshore that you can be pretty sure that the water is clear of bacteria and debris and have a blast. We went out with Sebago for my birthday, and we had a great time. Read about it HERE. They all have day trips that are lots of fun.
Ask your hotel if they drained the pool, cleaned the surface and refilled it with post-boil alert water and then shocked it once it was re-filled. If they hedge about answering that? Use your judgment, but I’m not getting in it unless the former was done, especially if I’ve got an open cut, sunburn or an autoimmune issue.
Fly, Don’t Drive
US1 is known as one of the most scenic drives in the country. It used to be. Irma has changed that for the foreseeable future. It’s now a monument to lives, homes and businesses lost. We’ve been sadly joking that it’s Mount Trashmore.
If you’re heading to Key West, fly into Key West. Don’t make the drive. You’ll be impeding the recovery efforts of volunteers, government officials and those who are trying to put the pieces of their lives back together. There’s nothing there that you need to see. Also, if you’re remotely human, it’s heartbreaking and depressing and will leave you in tears (and dreading the drive back), and that is no way to start a holiday that’s meant to be fun.
In case that soft suggestion isn’t resonating, and you want to see for yourself the ravages of the storm, let me be more clear: Disaster is NOT a Spectator Sport. Do NOT drive through neighborhoods looking in awe at the ruined homes and lives and taking photos of people knee deep in mud and sewage trying to save their children’s baby photos. These are actual lives, and these are good people who have lost so much. They are not fodder for your “OMG. Can you believe this?” Facebook posts. Yes, some people are doing that, and yes, we think they are beneath contempt. Don’t be an asshole.
Got it? If you’re going to Key West, go to Key West. It’s pretty much ready for you, sort of, for the most part. But the rest of the keys need time and privacy to mourn, regroup and rebuild. If you don’t have business there, mind your own damn business. Don’t rent a car and turn our disaster into your entertainment for a day. And for all that’s left that’s good in the world, don’t trash pick through what people have put on the curb. In fact, don’t go into neighborhoods where you don’t have a specific reason to go. You do you while you’re here, and let everyone else do what they need to do.
Be a decent human. You wouldn’t go to funeral to gawk and take photos. Don’t do it here, either.
Dine Local, Dive Local and Shop Local
If you’re coming to visit, please remember that the big corporations made money during this catastrophe. Rooms that would normally be vacant from mid-August through mid-October (some even close at those times) were filled to capacity with Irma refugees paid for by FEMA. They are doing just fine and are set up to have a banner year, and your dollars are only adding to their coffers. They don’t need them.
It’s the local businesses and their employees who were hurt, who don’t know if they’re going to pull through and be able to stay here, and who need your discretionary dollars.
So, when you’re looking at where to eat, what to do and what to buy? Go local, please. There are lots of wonderful locally-owned restaurants, terrific locally-owned charter snorkeling, diving, fishing and sunset cruise businesses and locally-owned stores and shops for souvenirs and things unique to the islands. Seek them out. Throw Fodor’s out the window, get the hell off Pinterest with their inane lists of “must-do’s” and search out local places to support. I’m happy to provide a list of just a few or you can use Google or ask us when you arrive. If you love it here, show your love by helping our community’s businesses and their employees.
When we first got back here, it was weird to see Duval Street empty and to be able to enjoy dinner outside, with few people and no one snapping selfies. We had wonderful dinners, and we talked to business owners and the people who worked for them. They’re all waiting for you to come back and happy to welcome you with open arms to this little piece of paradise. But they need your business now more than any of the big corporate entities.
Helpful hint: Jimmy Buffett and Margaritaville are among the former big corporations I mentioned. They’re not a local business, and they don’t need your cash. Take a photo as you pass by, and then go eat and buy a souvenir somewhere else.
Tip Big or Stay Home
Here’s the thing that’s not your problem but matters a lot. The hotels have been filled with people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the storm. There are not “other places” for people to go on this tiny island chain. Already astronomical rental prices have skyrocketed in the aftermath of the storm as the number of rentals has grown smaller and the demand much larger. And there are no FEMA trailers. (Before this, I don’t know what I thought, but I guess I imagined FEMA trailers sitting at the ready for people. That’s not how it works.) Affordable housing was a crisis issue here before the storm wiped most of it out. Now?
Once displaced from the hotels to accommodate your reservations, those service folks – you know, the locals you claim to love on social media who give Key West its particular quirky flavor – could be living in their cars if they have them. Or they could be living in tents. Or on the floor of a house that someone they know is letting them sleep on. Or on the streets. Yeah, it is that bad.
On one hand, everyone knows we need you back to boost the economy and get the dollars that we’ve missed for a month flowing again (and honestly, entertaining you is a way to take our minds off the mess), but on the other, we’re worried about our neighbors and their kids and how they’re managing.
So, tip big or stay the hell home. I know, it’s expensive to stay at the resorts. But now is not the time to skimp on tips to make up for that cost. Whom do you tip? Servers, housekeepers, doormen, boat captains, boat crews, tour guides and whoever else is helpful and does you a service. Remember, that person may just be homeless, and that tip may be the difference between whether or not that person has money to buy food or keep the phone connected.
Hurricane Brain is Real
We joke about “hurricane brain,” but let me tell you that it’s real, and it’s bad. It’s a kind of brain fog that is similar to post-concussive syndrome and results from the kind of extreme stress that is brought about by a mandatory evacuation, a catastrophic storm that blanketed the entire state, and a recovery effort that has focused much more energy on one tourist town than it has on the other 95 miles of the county and has had some impact on everyone here. We’re distracted, dismayed and a little disorganized. We’re all zombies in one way or another, and it’s not even time for the Zombie Bike Ride.
Forgive your servers if they are a bit forgetful and get an order wrong. Just ask that it be corrected nicely. If the snorkeling guide seems less enthusiastic on the trip than you had hoped, remember he might be passing the place where his liveaboard boat sank in the storm. Show compassion. Be generous. Be patient. Know that we’re doing our best in a really awful situation, and while you may not know the details, it’s hard.
I know you’ll be tempted to want to talk about the hurricane to bartenders, servers, the charter crew and the people you meet in shops. Don’t. Do. Not. Do. It.
Here, I’ll tell you all about it.
Evacuating is indescribable unless you have had to do it. You need to find gas for your car, which is what goes first. If you don’t fill up your tank, you can’t get off the islands. That leads to panic, upset, anger, fear and back to panic. Or you need to find a flight, which requires perfect timing and a credit card. Again, if you’re living paycheck to paycheck? Those flights got real pricy once the evacuation was ordered. Bless JetBlue for keeping their prices firm, but the others? $1000 for a 30-minute flight to the mainland? It didn’t just happen in Puerto Rico.
Then you must close up your house as best you can, knowing full and well that it may not be there when you return. You take your birth certificates and passports and social security cards, and then you choose what else you don’t want to lose that will fit in some suitcases. Look around your house and imagine that. Pick the handful of things that you couldn’t bear to leave behind.
Then you leave, wondering if anything will be left. It’s harrowing, intensely stressful and frightening. The drive during an evacuation is long and terrible. You are running for your life.
The storm comes through. Maybe you evacuated to a place where you are riding it out. It’s thunderously loud, and it goes on for two whole freaking days. Irma was monstrously large. A lot of us went to mainland Florida. Just because we weren’t in the Keys doesn’t mean we didn’t live through it. Not everyone took an #irmacation and even the people who did went through a lot.
We spent days wondering what and who was left. We dealt with traffic, no power, no gasoline and no contact with our friends and family. Then FEMA. Insurance adjusters. County officials. State officials. The Red Cross. Then there was boiling water and no electric and no cell towers before trying to get back. Evacuating is expensive, so there was the money drain.
And we came back to a horrible mess and the news that Fantasy Fest was still on in one month, which put a level of pressure on us that we both did and did not need. I mean, we need the influx of money so that our local businesses can survive, but we need more time to clean ourselves, our homes and lives up. We all know someone who lost everything. We all know someone who lost a loved one.
It was hellish. Good enough? We barely talk about it with each other, and most people are not ready to talk about it with you. So, keep the questions about it amongst yourselves. Pay quiet respect to how good things look so soon, be thankful that you have someone taking care of your needs, and chat about something else. Show some class.
Clean Up After Yourself
Fantasy Fest, Spring Break and other “high season” times often leave the island with mountains of trash. Well, we’ve already got mountains of trash, and we’ve mostly piled them up ourselves with the help of volunteers and others. Don’t make more mess. Throw cups and plates and bottles in trash cans, not the street and not on the beach. The oceans have enough debris with the houses and cars and boats that landed in them a month ago.
Trash needs to be removed from the islands to the mainland by barge or truck. There’s no other way for it to go. Be mindful of the mess you leave behind for us to clean up? We know you’re here to have fun, but remember this is our home, and we’ve worked hard to get it to this point for you to arrive. All we’ve done is clean up, pick up and fix up for the past five weeks.
Leave the island better than it was when you arrived, and if that’s too much trouble? Don’t leave it worse.
The “Friendly Locals” You Love are Tired
Forgive us. We’ve been working hard, and we’ve been through the wringer. We may not be feeling all that friendly because we’re licking our wounds and picking up the remnants of what’s left. Working with FEMA and insurance adjusters and bureaucracy is draining. Nothing is going quickly or easily for us. We’re adjusting to a new normal that we haven’t even really had time to figure out yet.
What does that mean? You may not find all of us as welcoming as you used to. Your presence may feel, to some, like you’re intruding on a family crisis. Give the folks who feel that way space, not attitude and harsh words. Not everyone sees your enjoyment of your vacation as their responsibility. You (tourists, not you) may be the reason that someone is homeless now. You (you, personally) jumping into that parking spot may mean that someone else has to circle for an hour looking for one so that she can go speak to FEMA about keeping a roof over her family’s head. Know that yeah, things here are still that bad.
We’re tired. We’re spent. We know you want to come here and enjoy the island, and we do understand. Remember that not all of us are ready to help you be happy when our happy is in the rearview mirror and our futures feel uncertain. Stick with the folks here who are ready to help you have a good time, and understand what the rest are experiencing.
Lower your expectations. Remember, we’re all One Human Family.
We Want You Here, But…
And that’s the crux of it. We do want visitors to come back to enjoy the island. It is a special place. But it’s a different special now, and we haven’t quite figured out what that looks like for ourselves. So, in keeping with what you love about the islands, keep your expectations in check. Be laid back. Take your time. Go easy on yourselves (it’s your vacation) and go easy on us (we’re trying to make it a good time for you). Cut everyone some slack. Be compassionate and respectful. We know that you love it here; we do, too.
And that leads me to several conclusions. First, do come visit. The people who live here miss you and need you, even if they’re a bit ambivalent about when and how you return. You are as much a part of this island’s identity as the folks who call the place home. Second, be nice to everyone. Have a good time, but don’t do it at the expense of anyone who is trying to put a life back together. Everyone is trying. Please don’t be entitled and obnoxious. Third, be generous, with your thoughts and deeds and your extra money. People are hurting. They’re willing to work for it, but please tip generously. And if you’re not coming down anytime soon, please consider shopping local for yourself and for the holidays. HERE is a list of places where you can find true, local Keys products from which you can order.
And finally, this will probably be my last post from Key West (but probably not about Key West). Last week, when I asked for an accommodation for a bit, my employer opted to let me go, albeit a little be more softly than it could have been for which I am grateful but oh-so-sad. I have loved it here; I do love it here. I will miss Island Thyme and TacoGrilla and all of the others whom I’d lined up for local business reviews. Meeting the people who make this place this place has been an honor. I am so happy that I had the chance to try Chef Lea Fettis’restaurants, Ocean Bar and Grill and Pasta Garden (both are sooo good), and I was even more thrilled to sit with him and hear about what it’s like to own a business here and make it work. He is truly living his passion, and you’d do well to pay him a visit. Donna, who served us, is a long-time Conch, who came here, left to go back to New York and then returned. She can’t wait to meet you.
And I was so looking forward to working with Key West Body Scrubs (because as Murph has pointed out there is no Sephora on this island) and so many others.
But I can’t afford to stay here with Murph without a steady income, and that income is sadly vanishing. I’m heartbroken. For those of you who followed the story, it really did seem to magically fall into place to get us here. I loved what I was doing, and it mattered to a lot of people that I do it well because it had the potential to help change lives for the better. We have felt privileged to be living here among the people who are so unique and interesting and giving. We’ll always remember our time here as being “conchtastic” and that there’s a rainbow just over the horizon.
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