A county-owned park in Tavernier saw a long-awaited celebration among residents of the Harry Harris community on April 13. Standing out on Wilkinson Point, glasses of champagne were raised during a soft opening to welcome back the park amenity, closed to the public since Hurricane Irma.
Sept. 10, 2022 will mark five years since the Category 4 storm struck the Florida Keys with 132-mph winds and an 8-foot storm surge. Middle and Lower Keys communities were hardest hit by the storm, with its eye making landfall over Cudjoe Key, but areas in the Upper Keys like Harry Harris Park also felt Irma’s wrath.
Residents were gut-wrenched as they returned to their Harry Harris neighborhood, where damage and debris were visible. Seagrass dangled from the front gate while sand blew from the beach to the parking lot. Debris filled the grounds as residents united to organize a cleanup. Limbs lined the side of the road.
“Everybody’s stuff ended up on the road or near the park,” said Nola Acker, longtime resident of the Harry Harris neighborhood.
Harry Harris Park re-opened Feb. 9, 2018, but more work awaited. Thanks to a Hurricane Irma repair grant, work to repair Wilkinson Point began in February. While the project is mostly complete, cars aren’t allowed on the newly-paved surface just yet as the asphalt must cure at the end of the point. But foot traffic, bikes and golf carts are allowed on the path. Work is now underway to repair a beach jetty damaged by the 2017 storm.
Suzi Rubio serves as project manager for the Harry Harris Park repairs. A resident of the neighborhood, she stood on Wilkinson Point with neighbors. Rubio felt elated by the reception from local residents who couldn’t wait to walk out to the point.
“I kind of had a soft spot in my heart,” she said. “Just like all the parks within Monroe County, the local residents love them very much and take high pride in the parks themselves.”
Rubio started with Monroe County in May 2019 after spending time with the village of Islamorada. Rubio was assigned to conduct windshield inspections following Irma. She witnessed the storm’s destruction and couldn’t help but feel what happened to neighbors on her street.
In September 2019, Rubio asked Kevin Wilson, assistant county administrator, and Cary Knight, director of project management, if she could work on the project located around the corner from her house. Sure enough, she received her wish.
“When I had the opportunity to come and fix this, I chose to do so,” Rubio said.
Wilkinson Point is named for Katharine “K” Wilkinson, (no relation to the famed Upper Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson). She moved to an area of Key Largo in the 1930s that, at the turn of the century, had been a farming community known as Planter, the precursor to Tavernier. Her husband, Jack, moved there first from Miami.
As newlyweds, they squatted along the Atlantic Coast in a makeshift tent and lived largely off of what the ocean could provide. She wrote the book “It Had To Be You” about her time there with her husband before there was running water, electricity or mosquito control. The book was locally published in 1996.
“When the two were married, K had been living in Miami with her mother and family, then she joined Jack and later the two kids were born. The point is really named for both of them, but K was more community-minded and helped to have the Coral Shores School built,” said historian Brad Bertelli.
With Wilkinson Point mostly complete, construction crews are now working on the beach jetty. Rubio said it’s a bigger project than Wilkinson Point. Rubio said it entails the removal of concrete, breaking apart the existing structure where it was routed many years ago, placing berm, backfilling and placing new rocks and asphalt on top to allow for foot traffic.
Julie Austin closed on her home inside the Harry Harris neighborhood on April 4, 2002. She recalls all the times looking out at the ocean while sitting on the rocks at Wilkinson Point. She also remembers dropping her kids off at school and taking a moment to herself on the way home before heading off to work.
“Having the repairs finally being made to our park means the world to us,” she said.
John Allen, Monroe County Parks & Beaches director, said the repair project at Harry Harris Park is moving ahead of schedule with completion around summertime. If everything goes as planned, Rubio said the project could be completed by the end of May or first part of June. A grand opening will take place once the beach jetty’s complete.
“It’s a beautiful park. There’s a lot of amenities there,” Allen said. “You’ve got youth baseball players playing. You got adult softball. You got one of the best boat ramps in the Upper Keys. And of course, the beach and being able to swim and have access to something like that is phenomenal and a huge asset to the community.”
Access to the beach, jetty and lagoon are closed with active construction in that area. The boat ramp will remain open throughout the project.
Last year, the ballfields at Harry Harris Park underwent refurbishing following damage from Irma.
Overall, Rubio said the park’s repaired amenities will bring excitement among her neighbors and the community.
“It’s not just the people who live in the Harry Harris park neighborhood, but everybody in this area who uses the boat ramp and beach,” Rubio said. “I think everybody is tickled pink that the county has done this amount of work and we’ll finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.”