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'Worse Than The Hurricane Itself,' Recovery From Irma Still A Daily Reality For Many In Keys

More than six months after Hurricane Irma, life in the Florida Keys is back to normal for a lot of people. Most of the hotels are back in business. Spring Break is on.

But a closer look finds that recovery can be slow and frustrating — and in some ways is just getting started.

Bill Tubbs and his family are basically camping out in their house on Big Pine Key. Most of the walls are still down to studs. There’s an air mattress in the living room.

But outside, it looks fantastic. That’s where Tubbs goes to work out his frustration when he’s waiting for contractors and county inspectors.

“I have to go in my yard and work on my garden because otherwise I’d want to put my fist through a wall,” Tubbs said. “And considering this is concrete block, that would be really painful and it wouldn’t hurt the wall.”

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Bill Tubbs at his Big Pine Key home. When he gets frustrated with delays at rebuilding, he goes outside to work on his garden.

The walls of Tubbs’ ground-level home are concrete. The roof is metal. And the floors are terrazo and tile.

So for being at ground zero of a Category 4 hurricane, the house did pretty well. The worst part was the water — about three feet of it, Tubbs said. That surge left about two feet of muck inside.

And not just muck.

“Crabs. Dead fish. And a dead octopus,” Tubbs said.

He stayed on Big Pine Key for Irma and had a scary experience in a different house. But “the aftermath, for me, is actually worse than the hurricane itself,” Tubbs said.

Having that much muck in a ground floor house led his home to be initially assessed as more than 50 percent damaged.

Under federal flood rules, homes that are damaged more than 50 percent have to be rebuilt to current codes — which would mean elevating the house.

Tubbs managed to get that assessment lowered when he showed that underneath all that muck, his terrazzo and tile floors were fine.

But the drywall, electric and most of the furniture - that was a loss. Now getting the permits to fix all that has become a nightmare.

“I feel like we’re taking a step forward - and we get pushed two steps back,” he said.

So half a year later, Tubbs, his wife and son are living with a rigged up sink and some electricity.

And he says that’s an improvement.

When he first got back into the house, “I was brushing my teeth in the street with a bottle of water. And I had to powerwalk because of the mosquitos. You can’t stand in one place at that time of year,” he said

While he’s waiting to get on the schedule for busy local contractors — and for the county to release building permits — Tubbs occupies himself bringing his garden back.

“I’m not a real religious person,” he said, “but you don’t know how many times a day I repeat the serenity prayer.”

Working smart, not just hard

About two miles away, Patrick Garvey is watching a big bit drill a hole in the ground at the edge of the Grimal Grove property.

“It’s a major accomplishment,” he said,

Garvey bought the two-acre property five years ago. There had once been a horticultural garden there, and he wanted to restore it and create a community center based on tropical plants and produce.

Read more: Abandoned Keys Fruit Grove Nurtured Back To Life

Now he’s putting up a new fence. For a lot of property owners, installing a fence is no big deal. But for Garvey, getting Grimal Grove secure is a big step to getting past Irma — and reuniting his family.

Garvey’s wife and twin 4-year-old daughters were in Brazil during Irma. Except for a month around the holidays, they’ve been there ever since.

They were supposed to be back in the late fall, but the house they rented on Big Pine was destroyed - along with their income.

“I had some different ventures going on with the property that I was hoping to create a little income stream. And that was lost,” he said.

And rents are even higher now than they were before the storm. Garvey’s living in a camper on the property, keeping in touch with his wife and daughters by Skype and WhatsApp.

“I can’t be doing that forever, but right now I have nowhere else to live,” he said. “I guess I’m technically homeless.”

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Patrick Garvey and his dog Bella survived Hurricane Irma in the refuge at Sugarloaf School. Now they're living in a camper while Garvey's wife and two daughters are in Brazil.

After Garvey bought the property, he spent backbreaking years cleaning it up and founding a nonprofit to run community programs there. Irma has brought something of a re-set to his attitude.

“This time around, I want to work smart, not just hard,” he said.

Since the storm, he’s been working as a tree broker - finding trees at nurseries on the mainland, then selling them to people in the Keys who need to replant their yards after Irma.

His goal, he says, is to see Grimal Grove come back - again - this time as a place that can make him more money.

“My priority, though, right now is really to try to get my family all together,” he said.

Garvey says he hopes his wife and daughters will be back in Florida this summer. They will have been living apart for almost a year by then.

'This is going to take us years'

A group of nonprofits has formed a Longterm Recovery Group for the Keys — to get money and supplies to the people who need them.

Stephanie Kaple, executive director of the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, is head of the recovery group. She says if people want to know how the Keys are doing, they should imagine what it would be like to lose not only their house or apartment but their entire community.

“Your children didn’t go to school where they used to. You didn’t work where you used to. You didn’t go to that restaurant, that grocery store any more. The people that you see, walking your dog, what if that was all gone?”

For some, that became a reality — and recovering from the storm is still a daily challenge, she said.

The Recovery Group is just getting started. Members are working with volunteers to help people who are still dealing with what they lost in the hurricane  get what they need.

“It doesn’t happen in weeks or months. This is going to take us years,” Kaple said.

As crisis after crisis happens around the country, some people feel like the Keys are already being forgotten.

Tubbs said he understands why a place that relies so much on tourism is painting a bright picture. But it can be hard to take.

“I think people, at least in Big Pine, are getting tired of hearing how the Keys have recovered and everything is going great. And - it’s not for a lot of us,” she said.

Kaple said she hopes tourists will come to the Keys in large numbers to help support the workers who need the money. But she said she also hopes they’ll consider volunteering with a local group or donating to help.

How to get help:

World Renew Green Shirt volunteers meet with individuals to gather data and prioritize a person’s needs so that the Monroe County Long Term Recovery Group can connect the individual with the best available resources.

For people who need help, World Renew will be hosting walk-in centers at three locations in late March and April:

Upper Keys: Coral Isles Church, 90001 Overseas Highway in Tavernier

Middle Keys: Marathon Community United Methodist Church, 3010 Overseas Highway, Marathon

Lower Keys: Key West United Methodist Church, 600 Eaton St., Key West

World Renew volunteers also will be working door-to-door in some Irma-affected areas between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the end of March and April. The volunteers will be wearing dark green shirts and carrying identification.

For more information, call 1-305-849-2252.

Here are the dates and times of the Walk-in Centers:


Thursday, March 29, and Friday, March 30: 10 am to 4:30 pm

Friday, March 30, 10 a.m. to 4:30 pm

Saturday, March 31, 10 a.m. to 2 pm

Monday, April 2, and Tuesday, April 3: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Wednesday, April 4: 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 5: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Friday, April 6: 10 a.m. to noon

Marathon and Key West

Wednesday, April 4: Noon to 7 p.m.

Thursday, April 5, and Friday, April 6: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Saturday, April 7: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Monday, April 9, Tuesday, April 10 and Wednesday, April 11: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Thursday, April 12, and Friday, April 13: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Saturday, April 14: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Monday, April 16: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Tuesday, April 17: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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