Something felt different about this one, this Irma. I’m from New York and moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1987. I’ve lived in the Florida Keys since 1994, when I went to work for the Keynoter, a small newspaper based in Marathon that I’ve now been editor of for 19 years.
At 53, I’ve lived through, and covered up close, any number of these storms, particularly those that hit or brushed the Keys — Georges in 1998, and Irene, in 1999, and the one-two punch of Wilma and Katrina in 2005. And of course I knew about the devastation from the big one, Hurricane Andrew, in 1992.
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But this Irma gave me real pause. It was big. It was powerful. And it was frightening. My dilemma — should I stay or should I go? — was personal and professional. People use the phrase “analysis paralysis.” That’s what I had.
On the one hand, my reporters were elsewhere — one in Orlando, one in Alabama, one in Broward, and one in South Miami-Dade. The Keynoter’s parent newspaper, the Miami Herald, was sending a reporter and a photographer to Key West. I knew that lots of people in the Keys would be staying put because they’re very independent. I figured if I stayed, I would be able to report from the ground.
On the other hand, my relatives in New York and Massachussetts were screaming at me on the phone to get the hell out.
My publisher, Richard Tamborrino, told me, “It’s your decision.”
Uncharacteristically for me, because I’m usually pretty decisive as an editor, it came to the point Friday where I just couldn’t decide. I dithered. I was like an infrantryman who has been in 29 firefights, then suddenly he’s wigging out at the 30th. Until it was too late, and the decision was basically made for me. By then the wind was starting to pick up, and I was worried about getting stuck in traffic on the way north. Anyway, with Irma still tracking to hit almost anywhere along the Florida mainland after the Keys, where was I going to go?
So I would be staying. It would prove to be a weird and unsettling experience that would end up with me in the hospital.
Now the question was, where to weather the storm? I figured my ground-floor apartment on a canal was not a safe bet, that it likely would be flooded by storm surge. (It turned out I was right).
I decided to bunk down at a shelter of last resort seven miles from my apartment, at Marathon High School. It was rock-solid, built to withstand 155-mph winds. I didn’t have any qualms about the building. My only worry was that flooding would come up and my car wouldn’t start afterward.
There was an added attraction: Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay and his top deputies were setting up their command center there, in the school gym. I would have direct access to information. Their presence made me feel like I was in the safest place in the Keys.
The school is a mile from Sombrero Beach, the public beach, which by the way is not there anymore. It got blown away. Actually there is still something there, but not much. It was severely damaged.
Mentally, I was still unprepared. I had downsized my usual go-bag to a small backpack, thinking I wouldn’t be gone long. All I brought to the shelter was my personal papers, a change of clothes, Fritos, pretzels and a bunch of canned fruit, and an opener. Not nearly enough water. A blanket and a pillow.
In hindsight, I made one really good decision. I ditched my old Pontiac, afraid it would stall in traffic or fail to start after the storm passed, for a rented Chevy Sonic with great mileage, since I knew gas would be a scarce commodity. If I hadn’t had that little car, I would not have been able to leave the Keys once I finally decided I had to get out. There was no other way to get out.
Before getting to the shelter, around 4 p.m. Saturday, I drove around. The wind was already howling. For a Saturday in the Keys, it was otherwise dead quiet. Almost no one was out and about.
I filed a brief story for the Keynoter website that night from the shelter, thinking I could expand on it later. “The Cracked Conch restaurant in Marathon appeared to be open, cementing its image of never closing,” read one line. That would not last, unfortunately. (It has reopened since.)
Little did I know it was the last bit of reporting I would manage to get out for several days.
There were 43 of us at the shelter, deputies aside. Many were stragglers, either elderly, some live-aboards, trailer residents — mostly people without the means or motivation to evacuate. One guy was in a wheelchair. People settled down in classrooms and common areas. I chose a common area because I could set up my laptop to work on a table.
I didn’t think I knew anyone at the shelter aside from some of the cops, who I knew from work. But most people knew who I was. To them, I was the Keynoter guy.
My bunkie — the guy in the cot next to mine — was named Rick Johnson, but he went by Cowboy. Cowboy and I got acquainted real fast. He was from Maryland and used to shoe racehorses. He lived on a 31-foot boat at Boot Key Harbor City Marina in Marathon. The boat is now gone, like two-thirds of the 300 boats kept there. Many of them ended up in the mangroves. One man who tried to ride out the storm on his boat there is still missing more than a week after Irma.
We had tons of animals at the shelter, too. One classroom had three dogs, four cats and a bird. There were pets in most of the rooms. They were all remarkably well-behaved. It was really comforting to everybody to have the animals around.
We were on the second floor, one floor above the deputies, with access to a terrace or balcony through a set of exit doors. We propped them open so that smokers – I’m one — could go outside. Until the wind got really bad, we did. After that, we left the doors open — that side of the building was shielded from the worst of the wind — and tried to blow the smoke out through the six-inch opening.
Someone had a radio. We heard some snippets from WWUS, US1 Radio, which somehow managed to stay on air during pretty much the whole thing from their studio on Sugarloaf Key. The deejays were only some of the Keys heroes who would emerge during Irma. All through the storm, people were calling in. It was all anecdotal stuff, what was happening to people. Even after cellphone service went out, old-fashioned landlines were still working so people kept calling in.
Another hero was Deputy Wilfredo Guerra. He made sure we were fed and watered as well as possible under the circumstances. The shelter had provided military cots, for which I was grateful, but not much else. So deputy Guerra raided the school cafeteria for potato chips and Doritos.
By Saturday evening, the wind was really picking up. The power eventually went out, and along with it WiFi service and the water. Cellphone service didn’t give out until Sunday morning, sometime after I was able to make a call to a fellow Keynoter editor in Miami-Dade, David Goodhue, at 8:10. That was about the last time we were able to communicate with anyone not in shouting distance.
Some emergency lights stayed on for a while, but after that we were pretty much in pitch black. Some people had flashlights but I couldn’t find mine. It turned out later it was buried in the bottom of my backpack.
So I went to the bathroom using my lighter. Pretty soon the toilets weren’t working, and, let me tell you, those bathrooms got really nasty really fast.
When night fell Saturday, we took a vote and agreed on all lights out at 11:30 p.m. But Cowboy and I couldn’t sleep for a long time because there was something flapping very loudly on the roof. I think it was a piece of the roof that eventually ripped off.
Then, around 3 a.m., as we finally slept, someone died in a classroom on the other end of the wing.
I pieced together the story the next day. It was surreal.
Bob Childs, who works at Home Depot and was sleeping in a classroom with some others, said an older man made a loud breathing noise and fell out of his cot. They put him back in the cot and ran downstairs to get the deputies. They were banging on the gym door, but the deputies didn’t open. Either the deputies didn’t hear them or they didn’t open because they didn’t know who was knocking.
So the people in the classroom had to spend the rest of the night with the dead body in the room. The next morning, Guerra and Lt. Derek Paul told people what had happened; they said he seemed to have died of natural causes. The other people in the classroom were moved to another room so the original classroom could be locked. A week later, his name and cause of death has not been released pending notification of next of kin.
Soon, though, Guerra was making coffee downstairs and bringing it up to us. At lunchtime, he raided the cafeteria again and brought us Welch’s, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples. And he kept doing what he was doing even after he found out his personal boat was gone. The look on his face was unbelievable. He was a real hero to us.
By then, the water had come up and was flowing by on Sombrero Beach Road. People were looking at the water through the windows. I didn’t know if I’d be able to get anywhere. One guy who parked near me, his car trunk popped open and his lights were flashing because the electrical system shorted. That car was still there when I finally left the Keys on Wednesday morning.
The wait was tedious. Most people just watched the storm. Only once did things look like they might go awry. There was one guy, I dubbed him the Know-It-All. He kept trying to open another door, saying we needed to let the air flow through the building or some old wives’ tale. Tempers flared, and he and another guy got into it, shouting one inch from each other’s face. I put my arm in between them and got some bruises from it, but they backed down and that was it.
At some point, deputy Guerra said it looked like we were going to be there another night. By the afternoon, there was seaweed all over the high ground, which was a good sign. It meant the water was receding. Then the wind lessened some and some people started leaving because they wanted to check their houses. I thought they were nuts.
But then one of the classroom doors open and out walks Stan Haines, who I had known for 20 years but had not seen in four (after he moved away). It turned out he was living in a condo on a canal a quarter-mile from the school, and had decided at the last minute, around 6 p.m. Saturday, that it was smarter to come to the shelter.
When he invited me to go back to his condo around 4 p.m. Sunday, I did not hesitate. He didn’t want to be alone, and I didn’t want to spend another night in that shelter.
I did some scouting when the sun came up Monday morning. It was clear I wouldn’t be going very far. There was absolutely no means of communication.
Stan was fully stocked. We had hard-boiled eggs for breakfast, and after that breakfast, lunch and dinner on his grill – chicken wings, T-bone steaks, beef nachos. He had really prepared. There were beers. There was whiskey, Seagram’s VO Canadian. We were actually kind of comfortable.
I checked out my place. There was five inches of water in it. The neighbors were out taking inventory of what was a total loss or could be saved. They said one guy had come by looking for me. Someone had left me a bag full of Miller Lites, which I happily put in the car. That’s how people in the Keys are. They look out for one another.
Then I went back to Stan’s, at a loss over what else to do. I had that analysis paralysis again.
We were just resigned to the fact there was no reaching the outside world. And the outside world had no idea what happened to the Keys. So we spent hours and hours just catching up. Our only rule was, no politics. It was very civil. So that’s how it went for those three days and nights at his place. I am so indebted to him for taking me in.
I had no plan. If I hadn’t run into Stan, I don’t know what I would have done. He was my personal hero through this. I was so ill prepared. I don’t know why. I’ve lived through so many of these. Don’t use me as an example for preparation.
On Wednesday, though, I decided to try to get up to Miami to the Herald. We still had no water, and that was getting to me. And there was still no communication. My main goal was at some point to get cell service, contact my family and my reporters, and get back to work.
Stan did me one more huge favor. As I was getting ready to leave, I realized I had lost the $300 cash I had withdrawn before the storm, probably as I was interviewing a FEMA spokesman on Tuesday when I pulled out my press ID from my pocket. Stan lent me $140.
A little after 7 a.m., I stopped at my place one more time to see if there was anything else I should grab. I grabbed a Hawaiian shirt out of my closet. I don’t know why. And a hairbrush. I had forgotten my hairbrush.
Then I headed north. I was the only vehicle going that direction. It was a constant stream of emergency vehicles going south.
I kept trying and trying to reach people on my cellphone. Because I hadn’t even brought a car charger, I stopped in Tavernier at the first convenience store that was open and bought one.
What I didn’t know was that my sister Debi in New York had been freaking out. When she couldn’t reach me, she had started emailing everyone in the world. She even emailed the governor.
When I finally got her on her home phone, around 10 a.m. Wednesday, she was breaking down, so happy to be hearing my voice. Then after getting to the Herald in Doral, I called my reporter Dave and settled in to work. He had done a fabulous job in my absence.
At a borrowed desk in the newsroom, I updated our stories, contributed to the Herald’s coverage on the Keys, and, at the end of the day, approved the page PDFs for our subscribers for our Wednesday edition (the paper comes out twice a week).
And then I literally passed out.
My publisher Richard and Herald editor Alex Mena took me to Palmetto General Hospital. There I spent two nights, recovering from dehydration, before heading back to work.
I’m glad I stayed in the Keys. As much as it sucked that Saturday in that shelter, and then three nights of dead silence except for the sound of some generators, and two in the hospital, I’m glad I was in Marathon so I could witness Hurricane Irma myself. I would not have known anything of what people in the Keys went through if I wasn’t there.