The Sunshine Economy: Rebuilding And Reinforcing In The Keys After Irma

Jan 15, 2018

A month after Hurricane Irma filled his mobile home with 17 inches of flood water, Brian Branigan received a permit from Monroe County to replace his home's drywall and flooring. By early December, the drywall had been replaced and new plywood had been laid. He expects to start putting in the linoleum floor this week with the hopes of moving back into the home before the end of the month.

"My home is modest," he said. "It's just a mobile home, but it's home. It's not a house."

His is one of the hundreds of homes damaged by the storm's 130 mile an hour winds and flood waters that rose seven feet above sea level on Big Pine Key. It was in the eye of the storm on Sept. 10 as Irma swept through the Lower Keys.

Almost 25 percent of structures on Big Pine Key were destroyed or heavily damaged from Irma, according to Monroe County. Up and down the Keys, one out of 10 buildings is considered destroyed or has major damage. The worst of it in the Middle and Lower Keys.

The housing damage left after Irma makes worse in the Keys what already was a crisis -- a lack of affordable homes.


The average single-family home runs over $400,000. With a normal down payment, it would take an annual income of about $80,000 a year to comfortably afford it. The average income in the Keys is $60,000, well above the state average but still less than enough to afford the average home in the county.


Brian Branigan bought his mobile home in the Avenues neighborhood of Big Pine Key eight years ago. Irma flooded it with 17 inches of water. If a mobile home in his area was destroyed or 50 percent damaged, it cannot be replaced with another mobile home.
Credit Tom Hudson

Branigan and his wife bought their mobile home in Big Pine Key in eight years ago for $85,000. He was finishing up a $35,000 renovation to the home when Irma hit. "We had just hung the doors. The beds were in boxes in the bedrooms," he said.

He has spent thousands more dollars putting in new drywall, new kitchen cabinets and a new floor because of the damage from Irma.

It was a calculated bet in the weeks after Irma. Mobile homes destroyed or considered substantially damaged cannot be fixed up or simply replaced with a similar structure under the Monroe County building code. Branigan said he’s already had county inspectors check out his renovation work once, so he’s confident he’ll be able to keep his mobile home where it is. Others in this neighborhood and elsewhere may not be so lucky.

Substantially damaged, according to FEMA, means the damage is more than 50 percent of a home’s value, If is home is found to have been substantially damaged by Irma, it has to be brought up to flood code -- meaning raise it up or tear it down and replace it with a home that meets the newest regulations to withstand wind and water.

"Most of the housing is service housing" in the Avenues area on Big Pine Key, said Monroe County Assistant Administrator Christine Hurley during a driving tour of the area in early December. Hurley heads up the county's building department.

A modular home in Windley Key survived Irma. Monroe County is looking for affordable solutions to replace mobile homes destroyed by the storm.
Credit Nancy Klingener

Piles of debris still lined the streets. Rows of flooded-out refrigerators, soggy and broken drywall, twisted metal and furniture competed with mounds of downed trees as an out-of-state crew worked its way through the streets with a crane and truck picking up the trash. This area is not specifically zoned for mobile homes. "What that means is," said Hurley, "once the ones that were destroyed start to redevelop or rebuild the owners will need to seek out a solution for a site-built home, which is more expensive to build."

That means no replacement mobile homes, so "in the future when we have another storm they will be able to stand up better against a hurricane," said Hurley. "And we won't have such devastation and destruction."

Monroe County Regulations for Replacing Mobile Homes