KEY WEST, Fla. — Hurricane Irma took power, water and cellphone service, but she couldn’t take this tiny island’s party spirit — or the cold Coors Light.
Irma devastated the Florida Keys, a string of low-lying islands trailing Florida’s southern coast, flooding what appears to be hundreds of homes, trailers and RVs as the storm passed directly over the chain. Authorities have not yet released any formal damage estimates but said human casualties appear low.
Recovery workers on Tuesday fanned out across the islands, searched overturned trailers and RVs for bodies, and linesmen are racing to restore power. Gas remains in short supply and few stores are open.
But on Key West, where the sun shines and the booze flows, even snapped-off trees, downed power lines and streets filled with rotting seaweed didn’t stop the party.
“You’re surprised? This is Key West!” said Rit McClintock, 68, who rode out the storm in a pillow fort beneath his hotel bed. “If it wasn’t like this, I’d be worried.”
Tuesday morning found McClintock’s hand wrapped around a frosty drink at the Bourbon Street Pub, normally home to drag queens and a clothing-optional garden. He and Ed Sauer came to Key West last week to celebrate Sauer’s 72nd birthday and got stuck when the airport closed ahead of Irma.
They’ll leave when it reopens, but were otherwise taking advantage of the fact Key West wasn’t about to let a monster hurricane spoil the fun.
“We’d never close during a hurricane,” said Paul Rick, a 22-year Key West resident. “This is normal for Key West. As long as we’ve got a generator and booze, we’re happy.”
Chimed in Raggs Teixeira, 58: “And really we just need the booze.”
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Their casual attitudes belie the tremendous damage Irma caused along the Keys, but it’s primarily damage, not death, to be worried about. Tuesday was the first day evacuated Keys residents were allowed to return to their homes, worried sick about what they would find.
10 people and 54 cats rode out Hurricane Irma in Key West, FL. Despite some damage to landscaping, the home is unscathed. Photos: David D’Aquin & Scott Clause David D’Aquin
Authorities say three people died during the storm on the Keys, two of natural causes, and say it appears the vast majority of the Keys’ approximately 25,000 residents evacuated when ordered.
And what did returning residents and business owners find? Downed powerlines, no running water and no cellphone service or electricity. Palm trees snapped off at the base, coconuts littering the roads.
In several places, the storm pushed several feet of sand across U.S. Route 1, but workers with front-end loaders had already cleared that by Tuesday morning. Tangled piles of tree branches and seagrass are everywhere, and many road signs were knocked down.
Several gas station canopies were destroyed, the wind had peeled off pieces of roofs everywhere, and many boats were swamped or had been blown off their trailers. Dozens of RVs and trailers have been rolled over and slammed into trees, and others simply flattened. Dumpsters and propane tanks have tumbled about like Legos, and some parked vehicles were buried up to their axles in sand.
People who experienced the storm first hand know the winds came in bands or waves, and those varying wind speeds spared some homes and destroyed others. In general, RVs and trailer homes fared far worse than commercial buildings and homes built of concrete or wood.
“It’s so weird, one house will be perfect and another will be flattened,” said Cody Cowpland, 22, as he walked down the road carrying a six-pack of Budweiser and surveying the damage. “The house my dad built with 18-inch concrete is fine, but the tiki bar looks like a tornado hit it.”
This sign on a Duval Street store in Key West warns
This sign on a Duval Street store in Key West warns looters to stay away. (Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY)
So far, there’s little indication of widespread deaths, and a growing sense up and down the Keys that things aren’t that bad as everyone feared.
At the Tower of Pizza on Key Largo, which got electricity back Tuesday afternoon, a steady stream of residents and law enforcement stopped in for pizza, burgers and yellowtail sandwiches. Old friends traded stories about trees through roofs and water in kitchens, but mostly everyone wanted to clean up and get back to the relaxed life that marks the Keys.
\Tuesday, the sun was shining and the ocean waters were lapping casually at the sandy beaches around Key West, even if those beaches were dotted with beach boats and coral dredged up during the storm.
Much of the damage to the island’s important tourist infrastructure appears to be cosmetic, or at least easily repaired, and most of the hotels on Key West appeared to have escaped virtually unscathed.
“The good thing is everything can be repaired,” said Alex Rivero, 53, as he casually drove a golf cart across his neighbor’s trailer roof, which had peeled off and flattened against the pavement of the Long Key Outdoor Retreats community. “But it’s going to take months to put back together.”