By Paul Menta
As told to Sarah Thomas
Editor’s Note: Paul Menta returned to Key West on Monday, Sept. 16 from his relief trip to the Bahamas with Robert Spottswood Jr. and Billy Currington. The night before, Sept. 15, Currington’s Bahamas Benefit at Sunset Pier raised $26,111 for the cause. The following is transcribed from the account Paul Menta gave upon return from the Bahamas, edited for clarity and brevity.
The first thing you notice flying over the destruction is that there are two divisions that show what went on. First, there’s the absolute mayhem and destruction, in all the Abacos, including Green Turtle and Marsh Harbor. Then, you also realize there are other islands that are functioning.
When we flew in, we landed in Treasure Cay. We were on a private plane, and the cargo plane we had loaded — it was a 1941 Douglass from Florida Air Cargo — was already there. It was one of three, and they were carrying 7,000 to 8,000 pounds in cargo.
Flying over Treasure Cay, you see there are thousands and thousands of pine trees — hard trees, like Dade County Pine. These trees are 50 or 60 years old, dense hardwood, and they were snapped like twigs.
Coming in from the air, at places all you see are floor tiles and a toilet. That was all that was left of houses, floor tiles and a toilet, with none of the structure left. I don’t mean to make light of it; it was striking. This is all that lasted.
At the airport, whoever is on the ground essentially becomes the air marshal. All of us arriving to help become nervous and hesitant, because of what they’ve been through. But you just go up and shake their hands, say “Hey, how are you doing?” For us to see the cargo plane we had just loaded — it felt good. I saw my own handwriting on the boxes. People complained we were spending money on planes, but that was the only way to get there fast. In 10 days, we were able to help them mobilize.
We set out on foot. Billy and I had a mutual connection with Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar. This is where the Goombay Smash was invented, and it’s got a whole great vibe there; it’s like the center of the universe. Miss Emily passed away, and her daughter Violet runs it. I brought rum — she knows how much I love the Goombay Smash, and I am always asking for the recipe. We wanted to make sure she was okay. She was there; we got to see her. It was emotional and celebratory.
The bar is still intact but big time damaged. It was eerily quiet. There are basketball courts adjacent to the bar and to be there and not hear kids playing basketball was strange. Most people have fled Nassau.
Then, Violet showed us her house. We wanted to show her some kind of commitment, and I pulled out a Conch Republic flag. She asked what it was, and I said: “It’s a Conch Republic flag, and you’re our sister city.” We flew it on a mast in front of her house. And she said, “You guys are really here to help, aren’t you?”
We said: “We’ve got to start somewhere, so let’s start with your bar and your house.”
When I say this I’m not speaking for Key West Cares as a whole. I’m speaking for myself, and Billy and Robert. We are going to get a GoFundMe going, and let workers there earn an income and get back to work. We figure if we can get one place done, we can do another one and another one.
We continued going around to knock on doors. To see fifth- and sixth-generation Bahamians and talk to them and see what they needed, and tell them we had an extended plan, we’re coming back. They are smart enough to know that when the news cycle ends, so does the relief. There was a lot of hugging, and it was really moving because, I think, they weren’t sure that help would actually be coming.
We were looking for a guy named Rex who has a lot of family in Key West. He told us he waited for 17 hours under a bed, and just waited and it just wouldn’t go away; it wouldn’t stop. He said 17 hours felt like 60. That point — when it became interminable — is the point when lots of people tried to get outside and got caught up in the waters. (There are 50 confirmed casualties in the Bahamas, 1,300 people still missing. –Ed.)
We painted “Key West Cares” on the Conch Republic flag, and we felt like then they knew we were coming back. We didn’t answer all of the questions, but we got the conversation started.
Now that we have started with Treasure Cay and Green Turtle Cay, we are sending stuff to Bimini, to Nassau, to Freeport. There is a barge that will be coming into Nassau that can hold an additional 80,000 pounds of cargo and use Treasure Cay as a staging area. And then they can take more responsibility in helping neighboring islands. Logistically, more of our efforts will come out of Fort Lauderdale.
When we were coming back, myself, Billy and Robert were talking, and we said: It’s like everyone in the Keys has PTSD from Irma, and we felt the power of Dorian coming, even though it wasn’t coming for us. I think we all jumped into it naturally, and it eased some of the bad memories we share to be able to come back together and do something. I saw people acting very different than I’ve seen in the past, before Irma. Nobody was trying to jump into the limelight, everybody was just sweating their ass off and doing what they could, together.
We sent the photo we took to Violet, and I hope that shows our commitment. I think they are being empowered to help others more, and not just feel like victims. Once Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar comes back, we’ll get together and have a reopening. That will be quite a while.
At least on Green Turtle, there was no loss of life, and that’s a blessing.
All photos: PAUL MENTA/Contributed