Editor’s note: It’s been 542 days since Hurricane Irma swept the Keys. By in large, the Keys have recovered. But there are still some pockets that are working on rebuilding, including commercial fishermen. Many lost thousands of traps and are still struggling against the vagaries of Mother Nature. It’s something to note this weekend of the Marathon Seafood Festival.
Many homes and businesses were destroyed when Hurricane Irma swept through the Florida Keys. Some will never be rebuilt; many small businesses were forced to close forever.
“We were wiped out. No insurance. Everything was destroyed,” said George Cabrera. To try for a comeback after total devastation of the Lobster Walk, Fish House Marina and fuel depot seemed an impossible task.
In the wake of hurricane damage, George and Angel Cabrera were faced with the task of rebuilding one of the Keys landmarks alone, with only help from family and friends.
“The lobster boats made it into the mangroves. Some had minor damage; they were virtually saved. Our marina and docks with all the buildings were wiped out. There was nothing left. The hurricane pushed everything into the bay,” Angel said.
Sand was everywhere and covered everything. The boardwalk from U.S. 1 wasn’t seen. Lobster traps that had been newly made and piled up were gone. To support the marina, lobster and stone crab fishery, new fuel tanks had to be purchased with permitted installations. Freezers, refrigerators, a new steamer and new aluminum structures to house the retail seafood operation had to be built. Holding tanks, aerators and pumps had to be purchased.
For all intents and purposes, the former fish house and marina on a narrow spit of land at MM 74 in Lower Matecumbe Key was nothing more than a vacant lot. In less than two years, George and Angel, with the volunteer help of relatives and friends, have rebuilt Lobster Walk better than ever.
“People still don’t know that they can now buy fuel here,” he said. “We sold gasoline to one private boat owner today. Little by little, the word will get out that we are back in operation.”
“Boats bring in their catch; nothing can be fresher. We steam our stone crabs. Everybody else boils them. That changes the taste. We sell live lobsters, fish and lobster tails. Our prices are the best in the Keys,” Angel said. She was working with Blanca to crack stone crab claws, chilled after steaming. Visitors wanted to eat them fresh at shaded picnic tables right at the marina.
“I painted those plywood signs saying ‘Live Lobster.’ People are coming back. When we had too many lobsters we put a sign up ‘Live lobsters $3.99 a pound.’ They didn’t last long,” Angel smiled, pushed hair off her forehead, pausing only long enough to answer a customer’s question about take-away prices for jumbo stone crab claws.
Two men wanted to catch their own live lobsters from a large holding tank. Getting new tanks installed was another travail. All new tanks and pumps had to be brought in and installed after the hurricane. One man had a lobster loop.
“We had a man that wanted to snorkel in the lobster tank and catch his own lobsters by hand,” Angel laughed, watching the visitor use his loop to snag a lobster. It was quite likely he bought a bigger catch than originally intended, since he was having so much fun snagging them with his loop.
Lobster Walk is fun. There are maritime souvenirs, shells, carvings and unique art work set along the restored boardwalk. Picnic tables in the shade offer opportunity to sit with soft drinks and eat fresh seafood prepared right there, condiments supplied. There is always activity as trap boats pull up and weigh their catch. No matter how busy they are with repairs, George, Angel, Blanca and Big George always take time to talk with visitors.
The Cabreras plan a restaurant that will sell take-away. Visitors can choose to eat at picnic tables if they want. A fishing supply store and motor repair shop is already in place. One of the Keys’ best outboard motor repair technicians works out of a converted container. She has more motor repair work than she can handle as nearby residents bring flooded motors to her to reclaim.
The Fish House, Lobster Walk and Marina are back in operation. Stop by and savor freshly steamed and chilled stone crab claws, lobster and catch of the day. Spend a few minutes or an hour enjoying the convivial company of George and Angel Cabrera. Their inner strength, perseverance and courage, despite devastation from Hurricane Irma, have brought this Florida Keys attraction back to life.
By JOHN CHRISTOPHER FINE