Key West’s last stand felt like a horror movie, one where the small town emptied by some looming apocalypse leaves a small band of stragglers questioning their own logic and sanity.
A local man burst into the aptly named Conch Farm bar, where Martin Liz and a few longtime Key West residents gobbled down burgers. The Friday evening hurricane forecast, blaring on TV, projected Irma barreling straight for the island, a stomach-knotting shift from one day earlier.
“You have to get out of town,” the man cried, announcing he was relenting and fleeing. “They’re evacuating all the police and firefighters. They said it’s going to be 30-foot storm surge — with waves on top of that.”
At the bar, an old man with a pirate’s crusty beard, grunted with absurd timing. “Isn’t that a tsunami?”
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The restaurant grew silent as the man walked from table to table repeating the news. Martin Liz and Miguel Perez, lifelong Conchs, seethed as an employee asked the man to leave. “He was fear mongering,” Liz recalled. “I’m born and raised here. I’d much rather stay here when I know the landscape and where people are hunkering down.”
Scenes like this played out across Key West late Friday and early Saturday as the monster Irma approached, already a killer storm projected to sweep across the low-lying island chain as a Cat 5 storm.
Emergency officials from Monroe County indeed were out — they abandoned plans to head south to Key West after the storm track sharpened. Where they would ride out of the storm was to be decided early Saturday, just hours before tropical-storm force winds would begin hitting the popular vacation spot.
A ride south into the Keys certainly felt desolate. Gone was the traffic on a Friday evening, normally slowed by Miami weekend warriors lugging kayaks atop their trucks. Even the cars going north, away from danger, were few and far between.
The billboards, hawking the kitschy marine zoo known as Theater of the Sea and an Islamorada strip joint best known for pizza, subs and “girls galore,” were rolled up for no one to see. Over the iconic Seven Mile Bridge, deeper into the islands, a Key deer grazed on the side of an empty road.
And, suddenly there were cars. Dozens and dozens of them. All empty.
The brave parked them by the side of the road, near the small bridges connecting the skinny patches of land, ground higher than almost everywhere else. It wasn’t much protection, but with the storm surge projected to easily wash over the islands, it was something to protect their vehicles.
“I was just going to sleep here,” said Michael Hames, his hand resting on his blue PT Cruiser parked in the grass just across the Niles Channel bridge. “I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
The 72-year-old retired house painter is homeless. His $300-a-month shack got sold more than a year ago, and he hasn’t been able to afford anything else in the Keys, where affordable housing is so scarce that many hospitality workers commute by bus from South Miami-Dade.
Still, the Washington, D.C.-area native won’t leave. “I’ve always loved being by the ocean,” he said. “I just can’t afford to live down here.”
A dozen or so miles down the Overseas Highway, as hot gusts rustled the palms, Liz and Perez began unloading supplies into a three-story concrete art gallery where they will ride out the storm with friends and several dogs.
Liz, a restaurateur, pulled with a huge banana bunch he’d been growing strapped to top of his car. A friend, Brandon Beach, 45, walked up with unsettling news.
Beach, the technical director at the Key West Theater, had planned to stay but got spooked when some old-timey Conchs announced they were leaving Friday night. He had enough gas to get to Orlando to stay with a friend. “The prospect of a direct hit from a Cat 5 is more than I want to deal with,” Beach said. “I just want to be out of here. I’m tired of worrying about it.”
Beach said his goodbyes and left. “It’s eerie,” Liz acknowledged. “There’s an eerie feeling on the streets.”
Down Duval Street, the main drag popular with cruise-ship tourists and locals alike, was unholy in its silence. The live TV news crews from Miami had pulled up and left town. Sloppy Joe’s and the T-shirt shops were all boarded up. The Key West ghost tours were over.
Just a couple restaurants and bars remained open. Amy Jones, a former teacher who now runs the Salty Angler, was still serving smoked pork and chicken (fresh fish ran out) and serving beers. Most of her staff left. She remained with her boyfriend, Brian Zinkelbach.
“Everyone has been so grateful we’re open and can provide a respite,” Jones said.
The couple chose not to evacuate to stay close to their restaurant, which turned 2 years old just last month. The night wound down just as the 11 p.m. advisory was broadcasting in the background, the head of the National Hurricane Center declaring the situation was “not survivable.”
As if duty bound to be extra Key West quirky, 51-year-old Mike Powersl chugged a beer and proudly donned a life vest. He wanted to ride out the storm to help his neighbors dig out of the damage, he said.
If he survives. He smiled tersely: “There’s a lot riding on hope.”