As Hurricane Irma thundered toward Florida, a good friend of mine went home to Sugarloaf Key, shuttered up his house and decided to stay.
He is not clinically insane. In fact, he’s an exceptionally smart person.
The argument can be made, however, that this wasn’t a genius move. That view was emphatically communicated to him in advance of the storm.
The last text I got was at 7:06 a.m last Sunday, just as the eye wall began hammering the Lower Keys.
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“You OK?” I asked.
“Fantastic — never been more alive,” was his answer.
And then came a long, harrowing silence that lasted days.
The islands got mauled by Irma. Cudjoe Key, not far from Sugarloaf, was Ground Zero. By now everyone has seen the shocking photos and videos.
Mass destruction. No electricity, no water, no way in or out. Nobody was sure who lived and who died.
The nightmare of nightmares had finally come true.
For more than 10 years, the Keys was my home. It’s a place that can lure anybody into a state of perpetual relaxation. Worry seems unnatural there.
Still, every August, all of us would start paying closer attention to cloud formations in the distant tropics. Satellite tracking had become so good that you could watch a hurricane hatch, 2,000 miles away.
At dockside bars from Key West to Key Largo, the decibel level at happy hour would drop noticeably if the television happened to be tuned to a weather report, and the graphic happened to be a red icon rotating counter-clockwise.
Often, someone at the bar would complain that the Miami stations were hyping a storm on the far side of the Atlantic just to boost ratings. They were scaring people away from the Keys!
This attitude sprung from decades of radiant luck — close calls and near-hits that fade into the collective memory as false alarms. And the storms that actually hit the islands never seemed to be as biblical as predicted.
Some residents still spoke with bitterness about the early evacuation in August 2000 for Hurricane Debby, a storm that basically dissolved into a squall before reaching the Keys. Tourism took a brutal beating.
Hurricanes that got close sparked the same old conversation. Are you staying? Are you leaving? How long are you waiting to decide?
Size mattered. A common view was that anyone in a well-built house with a good roof would be safe during a Cat 1 or a Cat 2 — even a Cat 3, depending on where you lived in relation to the surge.
Yet all of us understood that if we stayed and our house didn’t fall, the aftermath would still be arduous. We’d be stranded in debris and hellish heat, cut off from the mainland with no power, water, phones, or Internet.
Mine was an elevated old concrete house with a poured concrete roof. It would never be featured in a design magazine, but that sucker wasn’t going anywhere.
So we stayed during Hurricane Georges in September 1998, and six weeks later we stayed for Mitch, which cooperatively fizzled into a tropical storm.
And over the years we stayed for all the ones that loomed ominously but veered elsewhere — the first Harvey, the first Irene, Debby, Michelle, Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne.
But none was as intimidating as Irma. You might reasonably wonder why anybody in their right minds would put themselves in the path of such a monster?
FEMA estimates 10,000 people refused to evacuate the Keys — a high, shaky guess. I’m sure a few Darwinian samples stayed just for the thrill of it, just so they could say they did, but for most this was a wrenching choice.
If your life is your motel business or restaurant or lobster boat, it’s hard to pack up and drive away, not knowing when you’ll get back on the island, or what will remain of your world.
Judging these folks is easy if you’ve never faced such a situation. The ones I know who stayed for Irma didn’t do it for kicks. They knew it would be scary. They knew it would be miserable afterward.
They did not imagine, however, how awful this one would be.
As I write this column, there’s still no way to contact most of the Middle and Lower Keys. The cell towers are trashed. Even if you had a signal, there’s no electricity to charge your phone.
Soon the state will re-open Highway One below Islamorada, so those who evacuated can drive back. Many have been told what awaits them.
A friend heading to Big Pine knows his house is destroyed. Another friend with a home on Cudjoe is returning to a washed-out shell. A satellite photo shows two boats tossed in his yard.
As for my friend marooned on Sugarloaf, he got word to his wife that’s he’s alive and unhurt, the best possible news.
Someday we’ll ask him why he stayed, but not for a while.