When the Fire Marshall inspected Denise Jackson-Glenz’s 36-foot motor coach for the parade, she showed him her fire extinguisher and told him not to worry.
The only dangerous thing aboard were the four strands of Christmas lights left after Hurricane Irma ravaged her neighborhood and turned her home into a “black mold factory.”
On Saturday, the motor coach was decked out in a “Key West or Bust” banner and surrounded by her neighbors dressed as goofy tourists holding signs with real questions she’s been asked since she moved to the Keys 31 years ago: “Where’s the bridge to Cuba?” “Does the water go all the way around the island?” “Is there a later sunset cruise?”
It didn’t take home the top prize at this year’s Fantasy Fest parade, the climax of Key West’s fabled 10-day festival of debauchery, but it was a late entry. Jackson-Glenz sign up on Thursday and was still decorating just hours before the parade kicked off.
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She grabbed some neighbors from Cudjoe Key, “ground zero” for the storm, she said, bought candy to toss to the crowd (she was too late to buy the traditional beads) and planned their theme in between visits from structural engineers and debris pickup teams.
Tomorrow, the “float” and its revelers will head back North to Cudjoe Key, where it will pull a Cinderella-at-midnight-esque switch and revert back to Jackson-Glenz’s full time home for the next year.
In that moment, however, under the occasional drizzle of the tropical storm that seemed to hear the partiers’ pleas and skirt the island altogether, the 36-foot coach was an escape.
Marky Pierson, the festival’s art director, said he’s heard the story over and over. Fantasy Fest is a chance for locals to show the world that nothing will tamp down their quirky, uniquely Keys way of life — holidays included.
“They lost everything, but they want to dance in the street,” he said. “I don’t think anything could stop what Key West is and what Key West does, hurricane or no.”
Pierson and the rest of the festival’s organizers (all first timers) eyed the skies and weather reports anxiously Friday and Saturday as Tropical Storm Philippe glided its way across warm Caribbean waters, sending rain bands across the island chain and mainland. Thankfully, a last-minute shift west spared the festival-goers the worst of the storm.
The last time a storm shifted last-minute, inhabitants of the Keys weren’t so lucky. Irma slammed the island chain as a Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 9. When the winds stopped, trees, boats and chunks of houses were scattered everywhere. Tornadoes claimed dozens of homes in the middle keys, and flooding and wind damage left thousands homeless.
Pulling off one of the Keys’ biggest tourist events mere weeks after the hurricane — instead of postponing, like in 2005 — wasn’t a universally popular idea, especially in Key West, which was spared Irma’s nastiest wrath.
“Some people aren’t in the mood to celebrate,” said festival organizer Nadene Grossman Orr.
Members of the $2.7 billion tourism industry housed in the Keys, who make up more than half the island chain’s workforce, felt differently. A big festival was a sorely needed cash infusion after a month off.
“It’s the shot in the arm this town needs,” said Jackson-Glenz, 56.
She used to run a 49-seat charter boat, so she’s no stranger to the impact of a storm on the economy and the importance of showing tourists that their favorite funky vacation spot is open for business again.
“What they’ve seen on the news is devastation, but they haven’t seen the rebuild,” she said. “The Keys are so resilient.”
Unlike previous years, where every parade float seemed more elaborate and wittier than the last, this year’s contenders included a few scrappier entries.
The float from Marathon had few decorations. The bare bones trailer had plywood debris nailed on with spray-painted messages like, “Can’t drown a conch.” Inside, a bathroom was Jerry-rigged out of a boat pump and cooler.
Its creator, Neil Cataldo, was homeless until the night before the parade. He and his team wore black T-shirts printed with a defiant green middle finger and the word Irma.
“Our goal was just to make it,” he said. “That’s how we are. We’re not going to let this stop us.”
On Duval street, the only generators in sight powered grills and lamps at street Shish kabob vendors. Spray-painted plywood signs advertised $3 beers and discount shots, not free water and ice.
Yet the memory of Hurricane Irma was still fresh for many of the festival-goers.
Claire Murray showed up Friday night dressed as a Meal Ready to Eat package, the military-style rations handed out after disasters. She rode out the storm in her mobile home with her five cats and pointed to the lewd (and occasionally nude) revelry as a return to normalcy for the Keys.
“We’re back,” she said.
The week of fun wasn’t just a respite for locals. Irma affected Floridians in nearly every corner of the state, some of whom are still grappling with expensive repairs at home.
Seven weeks after Irma raked the sunshine state, Regina Bonyadi isn’t yet able to move back into her house in Orlando, which has $60,000 worth of damages from the storm. In Key West, she doesn’t have to worry about contractors or insurance.
Like her last 22 trips to the festival, Bonyadi, 56, just focuses on her costume and having a good time.
“Life is short; Irma taught us that,” she said. “This is our time to breathe and let our hair down. It’s all about being alive.”