Dee Thorne wants to change the name of her trailer from “Escapade” to “The Escape Pod.”
Without the little trailer they bought in May, she and her husband, David, couldn’t have evacuated from their home on Big Pine Key when Hurricane Irma was coming. Without it, they wouldn’t have a place to live now that the storm is gone.
Their house was among the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 destroyed or left uninhabitable after Irma tore though the island chain and left thousands homeless. Some of those structures were second homes, but not all. For now, the displaced residents are relying on Red Cross shelters, FEMA vouchers, the generosity of friends and family, or, like the Thornes, their trailers and RVs.
Some of Irma’s harshest winds raked the key the Thornes have lived on for nearly 20 years. Mobile homes were crushed or simply gone, and other houses were buried in the debris. Houseboats were flipped on land or lost to the waves of the Category 4 storm.
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“We’re lucky,” Thorne, 70, said. “We still have our house.”
Their gabled steel roof has survived every hurricane since 1972, but that didn’t stop the storm surge from busting open doors and swirling the contents of the Thornes’ home into a jumble of saltwater-soaked ruin. Then, after being held away from their home for a week, the mold set in.
“The mold is just gonzo,” she said. “I don’t know what’s worse, black, white or orange mold.”
Their vinyl record collection was sprouting a fluffy bouquet of gray mold, and the $90 gadget she used to transfer their collection to CDs had a mottled mold trim along the bottom.
When she runs her fingers over her cabinets, the wood dissolves into splinters that rain down onto the floor that had three inches of stinky mud on it when they first came home Sunday.
While the Thornes start the long process of gutting their first floor and negot iating with insurance companies, they’ll live out of the little trailer parked on their property. If power and water return to Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge, where she’s the housekeeper and he does the maintenance, they’ll relocate the trailer there until their home is livable again.
“It’s going to take years,” David, 62, said, his voice breaking as his wife reached from her camping chair and squeezed her husband’s knee.
Not everyone has a trailer to fall back on. Most of Irma’s destruction was focused on the nearly 7,500 mobile homes parked on the island chain, few of which survived the storm. Monroe County submitted a government request for 7,500 mobile home units and 1,700 travel trailers to house displaced residents.
“We probably would have died if we stayed in that thing,” said Larry Cumiskey, whose Big Pine Key mobile home was destroyed in the storm.
The Long Beach Road home he and his family evacuated to didn’t fare much better. As the winds howled, his family strapped on life jackets and watched the doors bulge in and out. At one point, his wife wrote a text to her mother saying she didn’t think they would make it. Thankfully, Cumiskey said, cell service was already down so the text didn’t send.
Their next harrowing experience — after stumbling upon a dead body — was finding a place to live. Cumiskey, his wife and three kids wandered around Key West for days after the storm looking for a place to stay. When cell service finally came back, they waited three hours for a tank of gas and drove to a hotel in St. Augustine.
That’s likely where they’ll stay, as all the houses they tried to rent are still without power and hotel rooms are hard to come by. The undamaged spots with power are filled with first responders, contractors or even tourists.
“It’s a challenge because some of our hotels are destroyed and others are still honoring tourists’ reservations, who they’ll make more money from,” said Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark. “They’re battling for rooms — displaced people and tourists.”
Another option, one that just more than 100 Keys residents are choosing, is to stay in a shelter.
Brad Ingram, his 22-year-old wife, Syria, and their 4-year-old daughter, Luna, currently live in the gym of Marathon Middle High School. Underneath the mural of an open-mouthed mahi-mahi that proclaims the area “Dolphin Country,” they sleep on three Red Cross cots pushed together. Each has one of Luna’s favorite stuffed animals she can’t sleep without: a bunny, a teddy and an elephant.
Other than one suitcase with two days of clothes each, that’s all they own. The 47-foot trawler they spent the last eight months renovating as their new home sank at the dock a week after the storm, when the bilge pumps ran out of battery after a week without electricity. It sank to the bottom of the 15th Street Marina just hours before Brad, 51, hitched a ride back to the Keys.
“Every bit of living space on that boat is underwater,” he said. “It’s going to be about a total loss. It was like new.”
The Ingrams didn’t have insurance on the boat, and it will cost about $25,000 to raise and clean their home, which they had yet to christen. They don’t have a car.
The shelter they’re staying at, a school, is set to resume classes on Wednesday, with teachers returning on Monday. It’s not clear when they’ll have to leave or where they’ll go next.
“God got us this far, so we’re assuming he’ll keep taking care of us,” he said.
Here is a list of relief organizations in the Florida Keys: