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Letter From Key West: Hurricane Irma And After

As Irma was coming toward the Keys, I actually managed to get a couple hours of sleep.

This was surprising since the wind was already rattling the air vents in the room where I was settled on an air mattress with my husband and our dog. But essential because I had not slept at all the night before. 

I woke up around 3:30 a.m., went on the radio and started reorganizing my stuff. Again. The day before I’d reduced my life to four bags. Now it was down to one – the one bag I could take into the stairwell in case the windows blew out.

We still had cell service, somehow, so we watched as Irma’s eye aimed at the Keys just to the east of us. At least that put us on the less dirty side of the storm. And it was coming in at low tide, another blessing.

The building felt solid. You could feel it buffet from the gusts, but it wasn’t like the sway I’ve felt in an old wooden Conch house in much lesser winds.

In late morning, after the worst had passed, we looked around. The water never reached us in Old Town Key West. There were some big trees down, but most buildings that hadn’t been hit by one of them looked OK.

Credit Mark Hedden / markhedden.com
Lots of boats got knocked around, like these in the Key West city marina, but damage in Key West was largely limited to downed trees.

We knew Irma’s eye had passed to our east but didn’t know which areas were worst hit. Within a day or two we found out – it was the Lower Keys. That’s where Anthony Attilio was.

I met Attilio on Thursday on Big Pine Key about 30 miles east of Key West. 

He was at work at the Winn-Dixie and he told me about his experience during Irma.

“I was in a trailer at the end of Avenue C,” he said. “The trailer blew apart around 6 in the morning. We lost one wall then the roof and the other wall. Me and my roommate were hanging on to a pole outside and said our goodbyes because we didn’t think we were going to make it.”

Attilio knew some of his co-workers were spending the storm inside the Winn-Dixie. He waded through the receding storm surge and made it to the store. He’s been working there non-stop ever since. 

Big Pine took the brunt of Irma.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN News
When Anthony Attilio's trailer blew apart during Hurricane Irma, he took refuge in the Winn Dixie at Big Pine.

“I’m from here. My family’s from here. I’m a lifelong resident. It’s just a shock and sad to see everything. Everything that I know growing up here is gone. Nothing looks the same and never will. It’s really upsetting,” Attilio said. “But we’ll rebuild. We’re Conchs. We’re tough. We’ll rebuild. Everything will be OK.”

Some of the biggest challenges right after the storm were navigation and communication. Navigation because almost every street was blocked by trees or big branches. A lot of them had lines of some kind drooped across, low enough to catch on your car or even your nose. Communication because we all wanted to let our loved ones know we were alive, and of course power and cell service were knocked out.

On Sunday, I got a quick phone call through to an editor in Miami thanks to a friend with a satellite modem. We made it back to our house and found it unscathed though our yard was an impenetrable jungle of fishtail palms and mahogany branches. A week later it still is – we just removed enough to give us access and figured the rest can wait until we have 911 and better medical services.

So yeah, the medical services. In the days after the storm, that was what felt like the sketchiest and scariest part of our situation. All of us who stayed did so at our own risk. Communications were down so there was no way to summon help. People who needed medical assistance showed up in person — at the fire stations. Someone even showed up at U.S. 1 Radio, the only station that was able to stay on the air, and they put out the call for help.

Credit Mark Hedden / WLRN News
Reporter Nancy Klingener (right) working after Hurricane Irma.

Some of us remembered about land lines – true land lines, not the kind installed now that need internet service to work. A friend has a small hotel that was in really good shape after the storm – and Sunday evening we figured out they had a fax line we could use to call out. That was my first connection to report back to the mainland.

Getting around is still an issue. I’m always careful riding my bike around the island,  but  now I’m riding super defensively. I made my priorities personal safety, then journalism – that means staying hydrated, avoiding getting overheated, remembering to eat on a regular basis.

Power returned for some of us amazingly fast – we got ours on Thursday – but water has been a problem in the Lower Keys with a boil water notice and in Key West at least,  a couple hours during the day when we can shower and flush toilets.

For some people,  that initial period was just too much. When my husband and I were heading up to Big Pine Key Thursday, we passed two women walking along the Overseas Highway on Big Coppitt Key.

We pulled over and met Stacy Young and Sheree Pruitt. They were walking to the mainland from Key West, even in good conditions a three-hour drive. 

Credit Mark Hedden / markhedden.com
Sheree Pruitt, left, and Stacy Young decided to walk out of the Keys on Thursday, Sept. 14.

“There's no other way out. No way out. So we’re going to walk,” Young said. “Right now there’s still no lights. No power. It is coming on, little by little, but water comes on twice a day. I can’t do that. I have too many health problems to stay there and it’s too hot. Can’t come out after it gets dark. So no. I’ll be back when it gets put back together.

Young and Pruitt each had a rolling case, one for water and food, one for clothes. Young had her medications for asthma, high blood pressure, and a bad knee. She had a bike light on her cane. And she was carrying a bag with her Yorkshire Terrier, Gucci.

We gave them a ride to Big Pine Key. We offered to drop them at the station where the National Guard was distributing food and water, but they wanted to head up the road. Young’s daughter had ridden out on a motorcycle earlier in the day, to meet up with Young’s mother in South Dade.

“I know my daughter. She halfway made it. She’s probably up there sitting waiting for us,” Young said as they rolled their cases onto the Spanish Harbor Bridge, which goes from Big Pine Key towards Marathon. We were hoping other people would give them rides along the way. I emailed Young to see if they made it out OK, but as of Monday afternoon had not heard from her.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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