Three weeks after Hurricane Irma lashed Chokoloskee and Everglades City, the small fishing villages as well known for stone crabs as their outlaw past are still digging out from a blow that brought powerful winds but also something much worse — a storm surge awash in deep, foul mud.
At Shannon and Billy Snyder’s cottage, the front porch Billy lined with driftwood could pass for a dried-out riverbed. Along Riverside Drive, a bulldozer has plowed up mounds of the stuff, creating drifts like brown snow. And when the skies ominously darkened and sent another round of pounding rain last week, a carpet of mud surrounding the RV now serving as Everglades City’s temporary town hall turned slick again, sending the mayor slipping and sliding in his crabber boots.
While the damage from Irma’s landfall in the Lower Keys was severe, the impact in this isolated pocket of Southwest Florida may be worse. So far, about 100 homes have been condemned, but countless others are barely habitable, their sodden insides stripped by owners or sprouting mold and mildew as damaging as any hurricane.
“I got people staying in homes that I wished they weren’t in,” said Mayor Howie Grimm, who rode out the storm with his 88-year-old mother and brother in his stilt house. “They went and cleaned them up somewhat, but I’m terrified for them with the mold. And some of them even have small children. We need to give them an option.”
Everglades City and Chokoloskee — a 45-minute drive southeast of Naples — are about as far from anything as you can get in Florida. Surrounded by swamp on one side and a maze of islands on the other, they have long been a watery outpost for old Florida, perhaps the last in South Florida. After Irma, residents long used to fending for themselves did just that.
“A lot of these folks are fourth and fifth generation, so they were here before the government was here to help them,” Grimm said.
Two days after the storm, Grimm, whose family moved from Marathon — nearly 40 years ago when they decided the Keys were already getting too congested — got two generators into his flooded fish house and began making and giving away ice. It was dirty, he said, but cold. Everglades City School principal Jim Ragusa, who lost his Homestead house in Hurricane Andrew, gassed up the school vehicles, began making supply runs to Naples for squeegees and by the Wednesday after the storm was serving hot meals.
The traffic circle that sits at the city’s center is now disaster central, with a tractor trailer carrying 17 washers and dryers providing free laundry, two postal trucks replacing gutted post offices and the RV where Grimm and town clerk Dottie Joiner have managed to keep things running. A white tent houses FEMA volunteers and a dining hall stocked with hot food almost daily from restaurants in nearby Naples.
At first sight, with so few trees toppled and most roofs left intact, it looked as though the town might have avoided Irma’s worst as the storm swerved up the coast after crossing Cudjoe Key on the morning of Sept. 10.
“Everything kind of looked normal. It was eerie,” said Tammie Pernas, who evacuated her Collier Avenue stilt house with her husband Tony, a botanist at Big Cypress National Preserve.
“Then everybody starts coming back and the piles start coming,” Tony Pernas said.
Families returned to discover water had risen three, four, even five feet high inside their houses and trailers. Mud, soiled by leaky sewage, triggered infections — Grimm’s mother was hospitalized after she developed a staph infection in a cut — so tetanus shots were offered at the Baptist church. At Steve and Patty Huff’s 1912 cottage on the river, water pushed the river bottom more than four feet up, filling the house with mud that then drained through air-conditioning registers on the floor, gutting the system. After two weeks of shoveling and mopping and mopping some more, the floors were finally cleaned, but remained warped like rippling waves.
The Pernases, who lost their Redland home to Andrew in 1992 but escaped Irma with only a “two-inch slurry” in their downstairs storage room and ripped screens, began helping friends clean up and sort through soggy belongings.
“We’d be taking their belongings and saying do you want this or not,” Tony Pernas said. “Usually by the time you finish their house, the keep pile was really small.”
For those who stayed, mostly the old-timers weathered by earlier storms, the damage came as no surprise. Dwain Daniels was one of about 100 locals the mayor estimates rode out the storm. He lives across the causeway in more rustic Chokoloskee, an unincorporated old Indian trading post on a 150-acre island outside city limits. Even at 81, the former U.S. Marine and seventh-grade dropout doesn’t have much use for outside help.
“When the road came in,” Daniels said of the 1954 causeway construction, “the law came in.”
After the Marines, he returned to Chokoloskee to carve out a living using the skills he had — navigating Chokoloskee Bay’s maze of 10,000 islands — to haul pot in what would become one of the island’s more notorious industries. In a series of raids and flurry of indictments in the 1980s, authorities eventually rounded up more than three dozen locals, including Daniels and his four brothers, claiming the enterprise did $75 million in business in just six months.
“They didn’t catch us because they couldn’t,” Daniels said. “When I got word, I was closer to Cuba than I was to home. I told the judge I didn’t have to come back.”
Even with the boom of trailers and retirees in recent years, Chokoloskee remains steeped in Peter Matthiessen’s celebrated novel “Killing Mister Watson,” and its own sense of justice. More than one ‘you loot, we shoot’ sign appeared after the storm.
Daniels lives in a blue house at the end of Demere Lane that his mother, once the local midwife, built after Hurricane Donna demolished the one before it. He rode out the worst of Irma’s winds at his brother’s house a block away. But when the wind slowed, his brother drove him home in his golf cart, knowing from experience that the water would soon rise.
About 6 p.m., Daniels said it started seeping under his front door and eventually rose about two feet high inside the elevated home, leaving behind a salty stain on the wood paneling. Daniels said he went to sleep on his kitchen table. His son Clay slept on another table. But outside, it was a lot deeper. Daughter-in-law Crystal Holler stood near a window last week where the water rose to the sill over her head to demonstrate just how high.
“Clay said when he went outside he had to swim,” she said. “Whoever said it was three to four feet? Wrong.”
Newcomers, who occupy many trailers that now cover about a third of the island, clearly admire the ruggedness and determination that defines the island.
“Nobody ever gets used to it, but they just go on,” said Mike Berger, who lives in Washington State but spends six months each winter in a trailer on the southwest side of the island.
But not everybody has a place to go home to. The Snyders and their two sons, 7 and 9, came back to a muddy mess, with water in the house rising to Shannon’s waist. For now, the family is staying in National Park Service housing used by seasonal workers. But in about six weeks, workers will begin showing up and the family will have to move.
The inside of their house is now stripped to the studs, with the floors torn out and most of the family’s belongings — chest-of-drawers, beds and toys — piled in the yard. What they can save sits under a fan, and a dehumidifier, in a shed that used to house Billy’s boat.
“That’s what’s left,” said Shannon Snyder, who teaches preschool at the Everglades City School. “Now I look at that and think: not so important.”
After the storm, Havana Cafe owner Dulce Valdes came by boat with her husband rather than wait for the county to reopen the washed-out causeway. Like everyone else, she found mud everywhere. Broken pieces of dock blocked the popular cafe’s front porch. Three weeks later, Dulce and manager Donna Harmtan were still cleaning up, but vowed to reopen by Oct. 15.
“We really need the support of people who have always come to Everglades City and Chokoloskee to come back,” Valdes said. “That’s the biggest help.”
For others, the recovery will be longer. So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has balked at bringing in temporary housing trailers because the area is a flood zone, Grimm said. Instead, the agency has suggested locating trailers along Highway 41, more than three miles from town. He’s pleaded with them to put them somewhere more convenient for residents, or at least provide money for RVs residents can park in their driveways while they rebuild.
“There’s ways around it,” he said.
He’s also vowed to speed up removal of the mounds of debris that still line every street in town and serve as a constant reminder of what his citizens have lost.
“Every day somebody goes to work on their house they’re looking at everything they used to own piled up in front,” he said. “It’s not easy.”
And frustration is mounting as residents, while grateful for their neighbors’ help, see little more than forms from federal agencies and dwindling options.
“FEMA sucks because they’ve done nothing. They sent paper-pushers here,” said Carol Foss, owner of the Island Cafe, who almost immediately apologizes for being too blunt. The cafe is a local hangout that employs about 35 people, who after the storm put aside aprons and trays to rebuild the gutted restaurant. Last week, they were putting finishing touches on rebuilt booths and staining trim so the restaurant can reopen this week.
“They’re probably doing things that aren’t part of their jobs,” she said wryly. “We’ve probably all learned things we didn’t even know we could do.”
Foss, who also lost everything in her flooded house, continued to pay her employees while the restaurant has been closed.
“I try not to think about my out-of-pocket,” she said. “You just spend your savings you haven’t touched for years.”
On the way out of town, the historic Ivey House Bed & Breakfast is open, but barely, with its habitable rooms filled with FEMA workers. Owner David Harraden said he’s still struggling to find housing for employees after two staff cottages, along with his own house, were condemned.
“Everybody’s been great, but we got people living in cars, living in houses full of mold, no beds, no nothing,” he said. “You can go to the [Small Business Administration] and take out a loan. And it’s a nice loan....But you gotta pay it back. And in my case, we had 30 rooms to rent and now I’m down to 18. So our income is going to be really, really short. But insurance keeps going. Loans keep going. Payroll keeps going.”
After finishing a plate of chicken and rice at the FEMA food tent, Harraden said he planned to talk with agency volunteers about his options.
“We’re not looking for handouts,” he said. “We just need help.”
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