Irma, One Year Later

Recovery can take a long time…

This past week marked the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Irma’s destructive path through the Middle and Lower Florida Keys. Homes and businesses were destroyed, lives were upended, and some lives were lost because of Irma’s aftermath. In my direct experience with four large and powerful hurricanes, it’s easy to understand why recovery takes years, not just months or weeks.

For many South Floridians, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was a sobering reminder just how destructive these storms can be. A very compact but powerful hurricane, Andrew roared through Homestead, Florida City, and South Dade County (it wasn’t Miami-Dade at the time) like a 30-mile-wide tornado. I can remember reinforced concrete light poles snapped in two, vegetation and landscaping obliterated, and buildings and neighborhoods rendered unrecognizable because Andrew blew away all the street signs and landmarks. Although South Florida went on and rebuilt, it took many years to achieve some sense of normal. And some never recovered.

1998’s Hurricane Georges was the first hard impact the Keys felt in many years. High winds and a significant oceanside storm surge showed just how vulnerable low-lying Keys properties really are. It was the first time everything under my house and in my shed was ruined. The storm surge brought in to my yard three boats, five bait freezers (one still full of dead rotting bait), and a couple of feet of debris, seaweed, and muck. Our landscaping went to the great garden in the sky. And I learned firsthand just how evil insurance companies can be. It took years to fully recover … and some never did.

2005 brought four hurricanes to the Keys: Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma. This resulted in three states of emergency, three mandatory evacuations. The one storm we all stayed for was Katrina, which veered south and sent a tornado right down my street at 4 a.m. before heading up the Gulf to decimate New Orleans and the small Delta/Gulf communities. By the time Wilma arrived for her visit, we were all some degree of shell-shocked, having gone through the previous three storms. Most of the leaves and weak branches had already been blown from the trees, and the Keys looked strangely autumnal brown.

While we were warned about a bayside storm surge, I don’t think anyone was prepared for the 11-plus feet of water that rose over docks and seawalls and over the Overseas Highway as it rejoined the Atlantic Ocean. Cars, homes, businesses, and lives were ruined, and recovery took a few years. Some never recovered.

We enjoyed a 12-year break from big storms until our luck ran out a year ago. We hadn’t experienced a storm this intense since Donna roared through in 1960. I don’t feel the need to rehash details of Irma’s aftermath because we all are still living them. But there are way too many sad, anger-inducing, and frustrating stories out there.

A friend is fighting with his flood insurance provider over obvious flood damage to his home caused by storm surge. Believe it or not — wait for it — the insurer doesn’t want to pay. So many people are still fighting with Citizens over their attempts to minimize individual damage claims. I have a friend who is living in a house with no walls. So many others are caught between being turned down for SBA loans, FEMA assistance, and other help. It certainly isn’t that they’re not worthy or deserving — the bureaucracy and red tape sometimes strangle the life out of any attempt to assist. And one year later, the City of Marathon has received $0.00 in FEMA reimbursement funds that were promised and approved even as Irma was just leaving the Keys.

Last year, after having applied (and been turned down) for three SBA loans and additional FEMA assistance, I did the same thing I did after a several-month-long fight with the old FWUA after Georges: sucked it up and financed a good chunk of the repairs myself. But I’m still one of the lucky ones. The situation has, however, given me new definitions for the acronyms. FEMA = Falsely Expecting Monetary Assistance. SBA = Sorry I Bothered Applying.

And still, some never recover. I’m sure we all know people who couldn’t take any more, counted their losses, and left to start anew elsewhere. Our hearts break for those who, so frustrated after not finding assistance anywhere, chose to end it all rather than face another day in the hell that is aftermath. It can be very hard not to lose hope. But there is still assistance. Recovery will take years. It just sucks that there are so many obstacles in the way of that much-needed assistance.

– John performs live Thursdays at Sparky’s Landing, Fridays and alternate Sundays at the Lighthouse Grill at Hyatt Place Faro Blanco, Saturdays at the Key Colony Inn, and Mondays at the Sunset Grille & Raw Bar.

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