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In the Keys, Irma ‘knocked out’ the tourism industry. Now, the race to recovery is on

Some residents call it the Irmanator: The roughly 97-mile stretch between Key Largo and Key West that traces the devastating path of Hurricane Irma, as she blasted through the Lower Keys and then seemed to grow bored with destruction further north.

Get past it and you’ll reach Key West, the tourism heartbeat of the Florida Keys, where damage is minimal, cruise ships are docking and tourists are trickling back in. But the drive down the Overseas Highway is no Key West. It’s a testament to Irma’s wrath, the breadth of her impact and the challenges that lie ahead for an island chain whose livelihood depends on cooperative weather.

At the entrance to Key Largo early this month, a white tarp draped over a Scuba Outlet truck tells Keys visitors the region is “OPEN,” an “Irma Survivor” and “#ConchStrong.” Near Tavernier, hand-less mannequins wearing Starbucks aprons and green hula skirts gesture to visitors that the coffee shop, too, is open. Debris piles, some with parts of boats or a chunk of a jacuzzi, are a roadside fixture. By Big Pine Key, the piles turn into mountains of detritus, looming at least 20 feet high and extending half a mile down the road.

The Keys hasn’t seen anything like Irma in modern memory, said Jim Bernardin, owner of Pines & Palms Islamorada Resort.

“This one ...is a different storm because the economic engine of The Keys is tourism and it’s just like getting knocked out by Muhammad Ali,” Bernardin said. “But we woke up.”

Now the Keys is facing the mammoth task of regaining its former fitness as a robust tourism attraction. It’s crucial that it does: Tourism is a $2.7 billion industry in Monroe County, responsible for 60 percent of all spending and 54 percent of all jobs, according to the county’s Tourist Development Council.

Areas that were largely spared, including Key West and Key Largo, have already woken up from Irma’s blow. And throughout the Keys, power is back in most places and all 42 bridges are open. The entire Florida Keys region officially reopened to tourists on Oct. 1, a move tourism leaders hoped would pump enough money into the island chain’s rebuilding efforts before the crucial start of Fantasy Fest Friday, a massive 10-day costume festival in Key West that is the county’s biggest event of the year and concludes Oct. 29.

“Our residents rely on tourism dollars to live their life, to pay the rent and pay the mortgage and pay their bills. It was very important for us to get the economy jump-started again,” said Stacey Mitchell, director of the Tourist Development Council. “We need an economic shot in the arm.”

Sporadic Reopening

From the Middle to Lower Keys, where damage was more severe, tourism has resumed in fits and starts.

Properties on the Atlantic Ocean side of the islands were hit the hardest and most will take several months before they’re able to reopen. Those on the Florida Bay or Gulf of Mexico side fared better, with some reopening despite some damage and others taking advantage of the low season to make upgrades to their properties.

One of the few places open in Islamorada is Bernardin’s Pines & Palms, located on the ocean side, which got pummeled by storm surge and high winds.

Irma took to the resort’s pool like a bulldozer to a LEGO set, plowing through its foundation and rendering it a total loss. Also lost: docks, the roof in one room, another cottage — half a million dollars in damage in all. Six of 25 rooms were out of order early this month, with the others catering to first responders and a handful of tourists. Rates were two thirds the usual price the first week of October, at $120 a night.

As of that time, Pines & Palms had processed about $250,000 in cancellations, “a pretty [high] number,” Bernardin said. Reservations for this month and the next are still coming in, though.

“We are being brutally honest [with future guests]. It’s not pretty down here right now,” Bernardin said. “If you want a clean place to stay and you want to come down, you know we are here, but the last thing that I want to have happen is somebody come down here thinking it’s OK when it’s not.”

The problems are so widespread across resorts in the Keys that data analytics firm STR, which collects daily data in hotel markets across the world, couldn’t put out information on the state of the region’s hotel market for almost a month. In numbers released Wednesday, which only represent little more than half of all properties, hotels in the Keys were about 35 percent full in September. Room nights sold and revenue dropped about 45 percent last month, compared to the same time last year.

It’s likely some hotels will miss reopening for the winter high season, which begins at the end of the year, altogether, said hotel expert Max Comess, an executive at Key West-based Johnson Resort Properties. Those that remain closed will probably not open until next summer.

Comess expects it will take until the end of 2018 for the Keys to reopen completely.

Places that are open will likely benefit from the lower supply, but they will also have to tackle the perception that there is total devastation in the Keys. Irma’s changing path meant some places got saved and others didn’t, but travelers thousands of miles away can’t discern between an almost untouched Key West and a bruised Islamorada.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there. I’m getting a lot of questions from overseas, people asking me if we are going to be open next summer,” Bernardin said with a dry chuckle. “We better be, if not, we are going to be in big trouble.”

Key West’s Boost

At the Southernmost point in Key West early this month, the iconic painted buoy no longer indicated you’re standing 90 miles from Cuba — or at the Southernmost point in the continental U.S. for that matter. A large swath of white paint covered the half of the buoy’s decor that was worn off by colossal waves during Irma (before being repainted Monday). The rest was a mass of faded black, red, white and yellow stripes.

“[It’s] a little worse for wear after Hurricane Irma but it should get painted shortly,” says a Conch Train driver to a packed bus of tourists as it bended around the Southernmost corner on a recent Thursday. “This is the Southernmost Point, we like all things Southernmost here.” The crowd cheers.

A gaggle of cruise tourists — off Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas that docked in Key West that October morning — scuttle over to the buoy between crashing waves to snag a selfie.

Newlyweds Jeff and Meagan Sammons, of San Antonio, Texas, didn’t know what to expect from Key West following the passage of the storm, but they went ahead with the trip — their honeymoon — anyway. Royal Caribbean was the first cruise line to start docking in Key West after Irma beginning on Sept. 24.

“All things considered, I’d say [the impact] was pretty mild,” Jeff Sammons said.

That’s because it was mild — in Key West. Down the way, one of the island’s top attractions, the Ernest Hemingway Home, is open, as are most hotels and other attractions.

“We don’t have our make-up on yet,” said Dave Gonzales, curator at the Hemingway Home, of Key West post-Irma. The buoy can’t get that paint job soon enough. Some chest-high piles of debris litter the streets. Plywood “open” signs are still up. But the museum opened quickly in late September anyway, Gonzales said, not for tourists, but for the Keys’ workers.

“[Our employees] were able to return to work, not in their normal capacity as a tour guide or book store employee, but everybody could return as a gardener. We brought everybody back, and as soon as they had their foot on the island, they had work,” Gonzales said.

In the long-term, keeping workers employed is, bar none, the biggest concern for the Keys. Before Irma, the island’s lack of affordable housing supply put the worker retention issue at near crisis proportions. Now, it’s even worse.

That was on Gonzales’ mind when he and his team set out after the storm, raking and cutting down limbs for a week to try to at least kickstart Key West’s reopening, and start paying employees who may live further north in the island chain and whose homes may have been severely damaged during Irma.

“We need to drive this train again. We are that locomotive. But that coal car behind that locomotive, that’s the cash income from tourism and we need to get that to be able to bring the box cars back on board — to bring Big Pine back on board, Sugarloaf back on board, Islamorada and Key Largo. We have a couple cars that are empty right now, but we are gonna get there,” Gonzales said. “That’s very important and that’s why Key West is open.”

Worker crisis

Robbie’s, an iconic restaurant, gift shop, fishing and tarpon-feeding marina in Islamorada, lost 12 employees because of Irma. Some lived in an apartment building in Tavernier that collapsed. Others returned to find their trailers contorted by the wind.

General manager Cailin Reckwerdt said Robbie’s, which reopened in late September, has taken on about 10 new employees displaced from places that won’t reopen for several months. The complex is running at near-normal operations after quickly rebuilding its dock.

“We don’t want to lose our good people so we are trying to do anything we can to help them,” Reckwerdt said. “We took on everyone that’s come looking for jobs.”

Keys tourism leadership is also laser-focused on trying to keep workers above water. That’s not easy in a region that suffers from tight restrictions on development and where the real estate market is among the most expensive in the country. The islands opened to tourists three weeks ahead of its original target date (the start of Fantasy Fest) because, despite the hardships many residents are still facing, getting the economy back up was central to rebuilding, said Mitchell of the Tourist Development Council.

The council also has launched a $1 million advertising campaign to lure visitors back. The Monroe County Board of County Commissioners approved the use of another $1 million for capital projects to improve tourism-related facilities impacted by Irma.

“If the residents need to fix up their homes, they are only going to be able to do that if they have a job to return to,” she said. “In an environment such as the Florida Keys, we are kind of like an outpost. It’s challenging when we don’t have outside impact and this just exacerbates that. Lodging- and tourism-related businesses that are in a financial position to do so are doing everything they can to maintain their workforce because they know how difficult it is to replace those people.”

Luckily, the Keys is also the beneficiary of a loyal base of repeat visitors, several of whom are aware of the region’s dire need for incoming business.

Canadian couple Norm and Lesley Carter, who were staying in Key Largo and Key West early this month, were worried they wouldn’t experience the vacation they had spent months planning for. But then they remembered the cottage-rental business they owned in northern Ontario years ago, and moved ahead with their plans.

“We knew how much people depend on the tourism. When we didn’t have snow for snowmobiling, no one would come, so we just said, ‘Why don’t we just go, you know? Support?’ ” Lesley Carter said.

The Keys is going to need that support for Fantasy Fest, an event that was created to be an economic boost at what historically is the slowest time of the tourist season.

“The whole premise was to raise revenues at a time of the year when it was really slow. How ironic is it that you fast forward 35 years later and the same holds true?” Mitchell said. “Fantasy Fest is going to be very important to the recovery of the Florida Keys.”

The event typically draws about 75,000 people, with festival goers staying as far north as Marathon, said festival director Nadene Grossman.

Grossman doesn’t expect that kind of turnout this year — three hotels in Key West won’t be open until after the Festival — but she does expect Fantasy Fest, which begins Friday, to draw a large crowd by the end of the event.

What reassures her? The hundreds of calls and emails she received after the storm were concerns about whether the Keys were even drivable or if Key West was destroyed. Now, those have faded as the message of an open Florida Keys was spread.

“As soon as we get going and the economy starts churning here in Key West, it will start to trickle throughout the Keys and we will all rise together,” Grossman said.

Ground Zero for Irma

On Big Pine Key, ground zero for Irma, the hopeful glow that is so pervasive elsewhere in the island chain is just a flickering light.

Big Pine looks like a conflict zone, home to hulking white Red Cross tents, military trucks and large FEMA relief signs. Whole walls have been ripped off some homes, the furniture still inside.

In one street corner, a TV is all that holds up the side of a small home that was shredded to bits of plastic. Across the street is a rainbow hill of broken kayaks — all that’s left of Bill Keogh’s 27-year business, Big Pine Kayak Adventures.

Before the storm, Keogh tied up his 140 kayaks — a vast collection that included vintage and modern models — as tightly as he could near two storage cottages on the edges of Old Wooden Bridge Fishing Camp, deep in Big Pine.

After Irma, 100 of them were gone, some being recovered as far north as Key Largo, about 70 miles north. Of the 40 that are left, 30 are salvageable, Keogh estimates. The few souvenir pink and green “Keep Calm and Drink Wine” T-shirts that somehow remained intact, even though the marina gift store around them was reduced to its foundations and a toilet, were hanging among a dozen survivor vessels.

Keogh, a good-natured Captain and experienced tour guide, surveyed the damage with his 10-year-old Australian shepherd-yellow Labrador mix Scupper — “a good kayak dog” — early this month.

“I started on a trailer and meeting people on the waterfront, over on the other side of the bridge [to No Name Key] and then I grew bigger,” he said. “Looks like I am now back to a trailer — which is alright.”

Keogh plans to start again with a tablet, taking orders and then taking travelers out on kayak tours. He also wants to buy a charter boat, and then he’ll be able to get by with a dozen kayaks, he said. Maybe he can be in business by Thanksgiving.

One of Keogh’s concerns: That the surrounding tourism infrastructure won’t come back, too. Hotels rely on attractions to bring people back, and attractions rely on hotels to give potential clientele a place to stay. People will come back though, he says, because Big Pine offers something even Key West doesn’t have.

“People come to the Lower Keys because they want the experience. This was the quiet, off-the-beaten-path part of the Keys. It will never lose that. We’ll always have that,” he said.

But some of what Irma took away, Irma will never give back. His pride was in his collection, the “Noah’s Ark” of kayaks, he called it, “two of those and two of these.” Those now belong to the wind.

“I’ll never get that back again,” he said with a shrug. “Nah, there is no way.”

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

Keys landmarks: What’s the status?

▪ The Moorings Village, Islamorada: Suffered considerable damage. The resort will not open at least until next year.

▪ Guy Harvey Island Resort, Islamorada: The Islander Oceanside Resort closed until further notice due to substantial damage; Islander Bayside Resort fared well and is open.

▪ Cheeca Lodge & Spa, Islamorada: Suffered considerable damage. The resort plans to reopen in early 2018. Reservations through Jan. 4 have been canceled.

▪ Bud & Mary’s Marina, Islamorada: Damaged but open.

▪ Morada Bay Beach Cafe, Islamorada: Open; minor damage.

▪ Bass Pro Shops, Islamorada: Open.

▪ Tranquility Bay Beach House, Marathon: Open; some damage.

▪ Banana Bay Resort, Marathon: Suffered considerable damage. Open, but without the pool, cable and continental breakfast.

▪ Seven Mile Grill in Marathon: Closed. No other details have been announced.

▪ Little Palm Island Resort & Spa: Suffered extensive damage. No opening date has yet been announced.

▪ Hawk’s Cay Resort, Duck Key: Suffered considerable damage. No opening date has yet been announced.

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