Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters will reopen to the public on Saturday, Dec. 16. With almost all the Hurricane Irma damages repaired, the only thing lacking is excited visitors to once again enjoy all the Florida Keys waters have to offer … while standing on firm ground.

“Most of the damage was vegetative,” said the aquarium’s Ben Daughtry. And while that sounds mild, consider that the aquarium’s footprint is largely out of doors. For example, a bank of mangroves was washed into the lagoon and the seawall had to be rebuilt. Aquarium staff also took the opportunity to freshen everything.

“It’s been three years since we opened and we’ve been operating 365 days a year,” Daughtry said. “We painted, we powerwashed.”

It also added new features like another touch tank and a nearby aquarium devoted to seahorses. (No, you can’t TOUCH the seahorses, Jason.)

During the storm, a small crew of helpers from the aquarium and the sister business, Dynasty Marine, stayed and tended to the animals.

“We were there at noon before the storm, and at noon after,” Daughtry said, adding that no animals were lost. “We will be adding some more creatures early next week.”

The hardest job, Daughtry said, was to clear the U-shaped canal that opens onto Vaca Cut. It was packed with debris, seaweed and sludge. Staff has been operating a pump to suck up the bits and pieces and the project is more than halfway complete.

One of the most heartening, and visible, signs of resurrection in the Middle Keys is the rebuilding of Stout’s Restaurant in the Middle Keys. Travelers on U.S.1 couldn’t help but keep track of the progress of the eatery’s reconstruction, post-Irma. Every day, it looks a little better.

“We hope to be open at the beginning of next month, in early January,” said Jody Hogan, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Lisa.

“We set a goal, for the first of the new year,” she said.

For the landmark breakfast and lunch joint, it was a footprint-to-header makeover for this genteel 54-year-old lady. The roof suffered, it got a little floodwater, and there was substantial spalling. The tile buckled, the walls grew mold, and all of the equipment was rusted by the time they returned from their long-planned honeymoon in Switzerland.

“It was the shortest honeymoon ever,” Jody laughed.

“Yes, four days out of a planned two-and-a-half-week trip. We spent the entire time watching it on social media,” Lisa said.

The Hogans were, literally, the second clients through the doors at Keys Contracting Services in Marathon as soon as it reopened after Hurricane Irma; and the Hogans sing the construction firm’s praises.

“We had two rules after Hurricane Irma: do one thing at a time and never stop looking at this as an opportunity rather than a catastrophe,” Jody said.

The Hogans purchased the landmark eatery from Suzy Curry just three years ago. That included the homespun history of Marathon told with photographs and newspaper clippings on every wall and flat surface. About half, they said, was salvageable and the rest will be augmented from other town folks’ files.

“This is a generational place,” said Jody, who was raised in the Keys. “I came here with my dad. The moms used to buy the Friday lunch here when San Pablo Catholic Church ran a little school for elementary students.”

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