From the third floor of my ringside seat for Irma, the palm tree outside the balcony swayed like a boxer who had gone limp, its head hunched over with two limbs that resembled arms, swaying with the 130-mph gusts. To succumb to the wind seemed to be a natural survival tactic as the tree bent from east to west. And the storm acted as power saw, unpredictably pushing roofs and trees from side to side with stubborn thrusts.
For those inside the Key West hotel with me, the arrival of Irma, a Category 4 hurricane with an unprecedented potential for destruction, the strength of the eyewall fury was damningly welcomed. The anticipation of the storm had offered an array of exhausting emotions, ranging from imminent doom to hope. Over four days, the experts predicted direct hits ranging from Miami to the Middle Keys, but it wasn’t until the final 24 hours that Irma somehow drifted west, leaving the ominous inevitability of a direct hit somewhere between Marathon and Key West.
Many have asked me if I would stay again and what my greatest fear was during the storm. First, I will tell you I am not brave. I simply rode out a storm with many others and watched as heroes sprang to action immediately following on Sunday. What went through my mind was exactly what was going through everyone else’s minds who lived here, whether they evacuated or not. It was the question we faced during the storm and it’s the question we must answer now: “What is next?” How do our businesses survive? And will everything ever be the same?
My business partner Jason Koler and I face the challenge that so many other local businesses face. First and foremost, how do we make sure our employees are cared for and paid during the next few weeks? And from there, how do we adapt to a Florida Keys that is primarily focused on rebuilding, rather than tourism?
Perhaps the best answer came from Jack Niles just after the storm. In a radio interview, Jack said we basically have two choices after something like this. We can duck our heads down in a corner for 30 days and hope it all goes away. Or we can get to work and rebuild.
And with that, the attitude of the Florida Keys is defined. #FloridaKeysStrong. That’s what you will hear for months to come. Texas and New York deserve their tough, persevering identities. But I’m willing to throw the people and the spirit of the Florida Keys into that mix anytime, anywhere.
We will rebuild and we will flourish. As for our small business, here at the Keys Weekly you have our commitment to getting back to work with you — starting with this edition. And while pictures and memories of the devastation are important reminders, so too will be the images of hope, the heroes who rose to the occasion and the months ahead as we define resilience from the 18 Mile Stretch to the Southernmost Point.