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Sundial Now: WLRN’s new Florida Keys reporter on the importance of public service journalism

Key West resident Pedro Lara takes a selfie in front of the Southernmost Point as waves from Hurricane Irma crash over the wall on Sept. 9, 2017. The 20-ton concrete buoy, which marks the Southernmost Point and 90 miles to Cuba, is one of Key West’s famous landmarks. Tourists flock to the marker every day to take photos, snap selfies, buy a souvenir or two.
Charles Trainor Jr.
Miami Herald
Key West's Southernmost Point as waves from Hurricane Irma crash over the wall on Sept. 9, 2017.

WLRN has a new Florida Keys reporter, Gwen Filosa.

Most recently, she was on The South Florida Roundup talking about Hurricane Ian’s impact on Monroe County.

“It’s almost as if Key West residents were living in different worlds,” she said. “The very next day Duval street was open with bars and even some t-shirt shops were open … And just a couple of blocks away, more than 125 homes in Bahama Village, the historic neighborhood, took on three-and-a-half, almost four feet of water.”

Just before joining our newsroom, she was covering our state’s southernmost point for the Miami Herald and FLKeysNews.com.

Filosa is an award-winning journalist. She was on the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“We all thought we were going home the next day and then the water started rising and we realized the levees had failed the levee system and the city was just filling up like a bowl of water,” she said. “We were all like, ‘How do we put into words what we're seeing?’ People on rooftops and people losing everything. People later just not being able to stay in their hometown.”

That experience helped shape her reporting since then and the way she sees public service journalism.

“I learned a lot about what it means to be a reporter and why we're reporters. People need help in real-time,” she said. “I just learned what it means to be doing public service journalism, people need to know and that happens with Irma, you know - it’s like, 'Here’s where you go, here’s where you can call for help, here’s where you can get a hot meal.'”

WLRN's Florida Keys reporter Gwen Filosa
WLRN's Florida Keys reporter Gwen Filosa

She arrived in Key West on June 3rd, 2011 — around sunset, she notes — to continue pursuing journalism after being hired over the phone by a local daily community paper.

“Everyone here remembers their moving date. Everyone celebrates their anniversary of living in Key West. It's really great. And yeah, I drove down with the dog and everything I owned in my Toyota Corolla and made a life for myself,” she said.

Over a decade later, she considers Key West her home. She’s also pursued a stand-up comedy “side hustle” there, occasionally traveling for a show or performing at the Comedy Key West.

“It always hits me — I have community here,” Filosa said. “It's such a small town. Reminds me of growing up in a little town in Indiana, but it's much cooler here.”

She compares it to Mayberry, North Carolina, but “with a little drinking problem.” That's the fictional community that was the backdrop of the two popular American sitcoms The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D.

This tropical “small town” often makes headlines for big news. Most recently, for the record number of Cubans fleeing the communist island and arriving at the U.S. border and Florida shores.

“Our location has put us in the humanitarian crisis of migration, people from Cuba and Haiti making those dangerous, risky journeys across the ocean, the Florida Straits, to reach the United States by boat in mostly makeshift rafts,” she said.

Other big stories she has her eyes on are climate change, especially because of the Keys’ low-lying areas and the propensity to be in the frontline of other environmental issues. Also on her agenda: affordability and living costs.

“It's almost hard to write about because everyone knows it. It's so expensive to live here and everything costs more,” she said. “It's become where working people are just getting more and more shut out of Key West. I mean — the people that keep the tourism economy running. The Keys are dependent on tourism, that is the industry. And those things just get worse.”

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Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the lead producer behind WLRN's daily magazine program, Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also works on visual and digital storytelling.