It only took a couple weeks after Hurricane Irma for the Florida Keys to declare the islands officially open for tourism again. And now the island chain's biggest industry is trying to rev back up with its biggest annual event — even as some areas are still dealing daily with the impacts of the storm.
The Zombie Bike Ride takes place on the Sunday of the first weekend of Fantasy Fest, a 10-day series of costume parties and parades that culminates with a big parade down Duval Street that usually draws tens of thousands of tourists.
Fantasy Fest was started almost 40 years ago. The Zombie Bike Ride is a more recent addition, but it grew quickly and attracts thousands of riders in every interpretation imaginable of zombie attire. This year's was no different, with an estimated participation of more than 6,000 people.
Most of them were locals. But not all.
"We come every year. This is my 23rd time down here" for Fantasy Fest, said Chaya Donne, who was at the Zombie Bike Ride with two friends, also visitors to the island. "This year especially, even if Fantasy Fest wasn't happening, we had to be here. We had to show some love to the Keys."
Her friend Crystal Downs drove the Overseas Highway and said it "hurt her heart" to see the damage along the way — but that she was also glad to see so many businesses back open along the island chain. She said she hopes their presence will help workers pay to fix their homes or find new ones.
"They need our help," she said. "And if that is by tipping a little extra this week, then it's doing that."
'This is what we do'
Carol Christman of Key West was wearing a dress modeled after the iconic Southernmost Point buoy — but she added a gray patch where the hurricane scoured away the paint.
She said Key West was ready for a party after the storm and clean-up.
“This is what we do. We bounce back,” she said. "It’s like professional football players – when there’s a disaster or something, they come and they play the game. We’re the same thing. We’re playing the game. We’re going in, and we’re having some fun.”
Christman works at a guesthouse in Key West and on a catamaran that takes tourists to the reef.
“We need to make money,” she said. “I don’t make money off Fantasy Fest, but a lot of my friends do and they’re counting on it to pay rent. The rent’s due, you know, next Tuesday.”
Getting tourists back to the Keys has been a top priority, from the local level to the Statehouse. Gov. Rick Scott was in Key West early this month to drive that message home.
“Our jobs are tied to it. Our livelihoods are tied to it,” he said. “It’s the most important thing we can do for all of our families.”
Less than two weeks after Irma crossed the Keys, the Monroe County Commission approved $1 million in emergency advertising by the county’s Tourist Development Council to send the message that the Keys are open for business.
Ads started running on television, radio and digital outlets, nationally and targeting major markets for the Keys.
“Hurricane Irma may have knocked out our power, but here in the Florida Keys we’ve never been more connected,” an announcer says in one, while photos of beautiful beaches and upscale resorts run in the background. “Together we’ve picked up the pieces. And we’re getting back to business.”
Some of those pieces, though, aren’t quite all the way picked up yet. Visitors driving to Key West down the Overseas Highway will see massive piles of debris and evidence everywhere of the damage that a Category 4 hurricane can do.
Some people who live in the Lower Keys are not happy with the push from Key West to bring back tourists so soon.
Who comes first?
“We’ve had buses going through and taking pictures,” said Jim Ensminger, a retired firefighter who lives on Big Pine Key, about 30 miles from Key West. His house did OK in the storm, but his neighborhood saw some of the worst damage.
Ensminger said Key West’s relatively quick recovery is impressive – and those resources should be dedicated to helping the harder hit areas.
“People should come first. The residents should come first,” he said. “Then the tourists.”
Prioritizing those resources – rebuilding damaged areas and bringing back tourists – is the challenge the Keys are facing now.
“It’s obviously a conundrum – what comes first, the chicken or the egg. The problem is, they’re both going to have to come at the same time,” said Andy Newman, who handles public relations for the Keys tourist development council.
The TDC collects a 4-cent tax on tourist lodging in the Keys and spends it on advertising, events and capital projects that benefit tourism.
Tourism is big business in the Keys even for a relatively small part of the South Florida economy. Monroe County has 75,000 residents – but 5 million people visit every year.
Newman said the push to bring tourism back is part of a long-term strategy.
“It’s not about what happens today. It’s not about what happens tomorrow. It’s about preserving the long-term image for the destination,” he said. “The person that has the plans to visit the Keys even in February and March during high season – we want them to keep those plans. We don’t want them going somewhere else.”