Florida Keys

Grim upside for the Keys this hurricane season — thanks to Irma, there's less to lose

In Big Pine Key, one of the areas in the Florida Keys hardest hit by Hurricane Irma, wrecked homes still line the roads nearly nine months later. Some sport 'for sale' signs, a popular option on the working class island for those who can't afford to rebuild.
In Big Pine Key, one of the areas in the Florida Keys hardest hit by Hurricane Irma, wrecked homes still line the roads nearly nine months later. Some sport 'for sale' signs, a popular option on the working class island for those who can't afford to rebuild. aharris@miamiherald.com

Hurricane Irma took Dirk Lockard's truck, his tools, his house — "it folded like a house of cards" — and turned the working class island he'd called home for the past 16 years into a scene of devastation. When the Category 4 storm swept through Big Pine Key in September with 140 mph winds and five feet of storm surge, it wiped homes off the map, crumpled trailers and scattered boats around like children's toys.

Still, Lockard, 58, isn't that worried about this year's hurricane season. After all, he doesn't have much more to lose anymore.

"We have minimalized considerably," he said, sitting in the folding chair in front of his current home, a shiny new trailer.

Although Big Pine, one of the hardest hit areas in the storm, still has work to do before the community is fully recovered from Irma, the rest of the Keys appear to be back online and ready for hurricane season. The county promises issues from last year — a fight over debris removal contractors and anger over reentry procedures — won't be repeated. Money is trickling in from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the residents in FEMA-subsidized housing are down to a handful.

Most importantly, said Martin Senterfitt, emergency management director for the Keys, residents had their storm preparation muscles flexed.

"Prior to Irma 90 percent of the people in the Florida Keys have never experienced a major hurricane. Now 90 percent of people have. Just that institutional knowledge, that right there is an incredible strength. We have a whole community now that gets it."

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That includes Lockard and his wife. He said if the spaghetti models show another hurricane headed for the Keys, then they'll rent a truck and haul their trailer home and remaining belongings to safety. And they probably won't come back.

Like many on Big Pine Key, Lockard can't afford to rebuild a home that meets the hurricane-resilient codes that have been considerably beefed up in the decades since his house was built — even though he had insurance and cash in the bank before the storm. But his land alone is still valuable, so he's selling it to bankroll a new life somewhere more affordable.

The Keys economy has taken plenty of hits since the storm. Tourism is down, destroyed homes mean less property tax income and only $600,000 in FEMA cash has been deposited so far in county coffers.

Despite that, Roman Gastesi, the county administrator, feels confident that Monroe has enough money to handle the next hurricane.

For one thing, the taxes and fees from the many people (like Lockard) selling their property are offsetting the loss of property tax revenue to the county from 1,500 homes that were destroyed and lost value. The county property appraiser is projecting at least 5 percent growth for property values next year, due in part to the replacement of cheaper homes in places like Big Pine with newer, more expensive houses.

The county also took out a $40 million line of credit. So far it's used about $29 million, and Gastesi said Monroe has such good credit they can always take out another loan.

The county applied for $34 million in FEMA reimbursement, Gastesi said. So far it's received $600,000, with another $2.2 million on the way soon from the state, which serves as a middle man for the money. Overall, FEMA says it has already given the state $21.4 million earmarked for Monroe. Statewide, FEMA estimates Irma recovery projects will cost more than $333 million.

Big Pine home
In Big Pine Key, one of the areas in the Florida Keys hardest hit by Hurricane Irma, wrecked homes still line the roads nearly nine months later. Alex Harris aharris@miamiherald.com

Assurances from officials that the island chain is prepared for the season aside, residents are still wary.

Mike Austin, a 57-year-old retired middle school teacher from Northeast Ohio, said he and his wife anxiously watched Subtropical Storm Alberto form and churn in the Gulf of Mexico days before the "official" start to hurricane season.

On Thursday, he was outside his Key Largo home kneeling on a car floor mat loosening the rusted lug nuts on his boat trailer. Next up on his storm preparation list, trimming the three coconut palms that dot his property, checking on his generator, and restocking water and looking over his box of hurricane stuff. His wife, Sue, is already thinking about which valuables and sentimental items go in the car

"I'm not going to argue when they say it's time to go," he said. "It's the price you pay of living in a beautiful area like this — or the risk you take, I should say."

The dark side of that risk is still visible in the Avenues, the center of the damage in Big Pine Key. Blue tarps abound. Here and there, properties have full camping tents set up with sleeping bags and belongings inside next to destroyed homes.

Like Lockard's place, many of the lots sport "for sale" signs.

The stacks of ruined cars, trashed mobile homes and soggy, mold-furred chunks of home siding no longer line the roads. Most of the ruined homes have been demolished. On some lots, concrete pillars have sprouted — hinting at the higher elevation home that will soon follow. On others, the carcasses of ruined homes still stand untouched.

"If we get another hurricane, there's gonna be a lot more junk flying around that hasn't been picked up yet," Lockard said.

One of the few cars parked in a murky ankle-deep puddle on a roadside has sprinkled signs across the dashboard and passenger seat warning passersby the vehicle is "not junk!!" but simply the property of a nearby FEMA trailer resident, one of 129 still on the island chain.

Lynn Ackiss, whose family owns the former trailer park turned FEMA trailer lot on Big Pine, said she's down to 14 inhabitants of the original 20 trailer households. All but one of the six families that left have relocated out of the Keys because they couldn't find affordable housing.

If another hurricane rears its head, Ackiss said she expects her residents to evacuate and not return.

"With everything they've been through, they'll just pack up and head out," she said.

They won't be the only ones. One of the lasting impacts of Irma appears to be quickening of an old and persistent problem for the Keys — rising property values and cost of living pushing out working class people. Plans are in motion to create more housing, including construction of modular homes on a community land trust, but for many of Irma's victims in search of a new home, it's not coming fast enough.

"We are gentrifying, becoming Martha's Vineyard. However you want to say it, it's happening," Gastesi said.

A decade ago, he said, 38 percent of the homes in the Keys were second homes. A study done right before the storm showed that had jumped to 48.5 percent.

"After Irma, I'm guessing 55, 60 percent," he said.

Big Pine tarp
In Big Pine Key, one of the areas in the Florida Keys hardest hit by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, wrecked homes still line the roads nearly nine months later. Some still have blue tarps to cover damaged roofs. Alex Harris aharris@miamiherald.com

The new homes sprouting up along the island chain are higher and stronger than their predecessors. They're built to stay standing after a Category 5 storm, not to provide shelter during one, warned Senterfitt, the Keys' emergency management director.

After such a long gap between storms, the reentry process to the Keys left many residents frustrated and threatening to dismiss the call for evacuation next time. They were stymied by roadblocks that — in their eyes, kept them from fixing their destroyed homes and allowed mold to spread, and in the eyes of the county kept residents from a potentially dangerous region without running water, power or easy access to medical care.

The compromise for the upcoming season is a certification course residents can take that will earn them the right to return soon, in exchange for 32 hours of training.

"The conceptual Conch Republic doesn't believe in waiting for the government to save the day," Senterfitt said. "They don't want that. They want to be part of the solution."

Dee Throne and her husband set up camp outside their Big Pine Key home that was damaged by Hurricane Irma. Their camping skills allow them to stay close to their home as they consider repairing the house.