(Editor’s Note: This retrospective was originally destined for our Home & Garden magazine in April 2020, but its publication was postponed due to the start of the pandemic. We at Keys Weekly thought it a perfect tribute to a hard-working family on this week’s third anniversary of Hurricane Irma.)
In September 2017, Hurricane Irma roared through the Caribbean, tracking an ominous route toward South Florida and the Florida Keys. On Sept. 10, the storm swung across our island chain as a walloping Category 4, hitting the Lower and Middle Keys with a powerful landfall on Cudjoe Key. In the weeks that followed, people emerged from shelters or slowly made their way back from mainland outposts. Numbers emerged — 6.5 million Florida residents ordered to evacuate (the largest hurricane evacuation in U.S. history), $50 billion in damage, 123 lives lost in Florida. All told, Irma went down as the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history. But statistics are of little use to residents who endured the aftermath firsthand.
Kim and Josh Wallen had rented on Big Pine Key for 15 years before purchasing their first home on Summerland Key in 2014. “The architecture of the place was great. We always saw so much potential,” Kim Wallen said. “We had so many ideas and always knew we could do great things with it. Be careful what you wish for,” she laughed.
As Irma bore down on the Caribbean, the Wallens — Kim and Josh and their three boys — reluctantly packed up and left ahead of the storm’s arrival.
In the days following landfall, they dutifully checked and rechecked for new satellite images, holding out hope that their home had survived. The first murky images to emerge showed their homestead standing, but worse for the wear after a brutal fight with the elements. They had lost a large portion of their roof, windows had blown out, and the 3 feet of floodwater that invaded their lot had rendered their ground-level guesthouse a total loss. The vegetation, as in the rest of the Keys, had also been stripped from their property, turning the aerial view from verdant to dust-laden. Ever pragmatic and proactive, Team Wallen set to work straight away, literally, rebuilding their lives. They found a temporary rental in Key West and returned to the Florida Keys two weeks after the storm.
“When we came back, we drove straight to Key West so the kids wouldn’t have to see the house,” said Kim. “Josh and I went back up, just the two of us initially, to see the damage in person. It was heartbreaking. There were family pictures all over the yard.” The Wallens picked themselves up, though, and made a plan. They started the tedious process of applying for assistance immediately after the storm. “It’s not necessarily just about rebuilding,” Kim said, recalling the insurance companies and mortgage adjusters that initially occupied the bulk of their time. The firms would provide 50% of the promised funds up front, but required the work to be 100% complete before they would disburse the remaining balance. And it took a full year for the Wallens to get even the initial payment and begin the work. While the initial payment and forward progress provided an undeniable sense of purpose and relief, it also left the Wallens holding a hefty bill for half the cost of a major renovation.
“We took out a loan and went ahead with the work. Josh is in construction and we’re both super handy,” Kim said. The couple hired experts for plumbing and electrical work, but tackled the rest with their own hands, investing elbow grease where dollars fell short. Josh led the charge on construction while Kim turned her keen eye toward the overall design and details that would make the end result sing.
The family spent seven months in Key West while Kim and Josh first repaired and readied the guesthouse, and then lived in it for a year and a half, gazing out the windows as their dream home took shape a few yards away. During that time, red tape gave way to blue paint and the Wallens spent their time and energy productively pounding nails rather than futilely fighting insurance companies.
Kim has an uncanny knack for looking beyond the trauma of Irma and seeing the process as a positive experience for their family. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to make the house soulful, and to have done that with my husband,” Kim said, deciding to regard Irma as the push that propelled them to do the work they had always planned.
The finish line is finally in sight, although the Wallen family didn’t receive the final bit of insurance money until late January 2019 — nearly two and a half years after Hurricane Irma hammered the island chain with a gut punch to its midsection.
More importantly, though, the completion of Kim’s stunning master bathroom, with its scalloped blue mermaid tile, just hit her social media hashtag goal of a #BubblebathbyValentines. The scaled tile in the bathroom speaks to her aquatic soul and is just one detail of thousands that personifies the couple. The dreamy open kitchen reflects the Wallens’ love of family while their use of reclaimed wood confirms their commitment to preserving the Keys — and their celebration of second chances.
Though the project has been a labor of love, by April 2020, the Wallens were beyond ready to wrap it up and return to life as they knew it, a life that, up until September 2017, had revolved around the water.
Josh and the boys fished to the point of practically sprouting gills, and Kim’s talent for creating gyotaku (fish) prints spawned her own design company, Kdubz Designs.
But in the months — and years — following Hurricane Irma, “There was no free time, no fishing,” Kim said when asked about the most challenging part of the project.
With a venture years in the making, it was difficult for the Wallens to believe that the entryway of their home would ever again be a repository for masks, fins and fishing tackle.
But it’s happening. Viewed for years as a Herculean project, the house on Summerland Key is becoming, once again, a cherished home.
As with any trauma, there are days when Irma is a distant memory and the brilliance of the bathroom tile overcomes the visions of prized and personal possessions strewn down the street. Other days, those memories flood forward. “You think sometimes that everyone has recovered and that it’s just me,” Kim said “Then you realize, people are still waiting, or they’re only living in one room of a house. There’s still a lot of sadness. Everyone here has an Irma story.” One thing that brings solace to the Wallens, and other families of the Middle Keys, is the knowledge that they’ve survived and that new life (and hopefully beautiful bathrooms) can grow from the most dire of circumstances.