Florida Keys

Some Keys residents still struggling to rebuild 11 months after Irma wiped them out

Gloria Holohan, 84, lost her Marathon home and belongings to Hurricane Irma.
Gloria Holohan, 84, lost her Marathon home and belongings to Hurricane Irma. FLKeysNews.com

Brian Vest didn’t need much time to test out a sofa he wanted Friday.

“It’s better than the cardboard box I’ve been sitting on,” he said, giving it his post-Hurricane Irma seal of approval.

Vest, of Big Pine Key, is among Florida Keys residents who continue to struggle rebuilding their homes — and their lives — 11 months after Irma roared ashore as a Category 4 storm.

Big Pine Key and Marathon were among the hardest-hit spots in the Lower and Middle Keys.

“I have four walls and a roof,” Vest said during a furniture giveaway Friday in Marathon sponsored by Keys Strong, the Irma recovery nonprofit; Rooms To Go; and Good 360, which helps match donors with disaster victims.

“Not insured enough,” said Vest, whose home was wiped out. “I’ve been doing it all myself.”

Vest, who is unemployed, has kept himself busy rebuilding. He also helped form a volunteer group, the Conch Republic Marine Army, which says it has removed more than 93 tons of hurricane debris along the shoreline.

Friday’s event was yet another stark reminder that people in the Keys haven’t yet recovered from Irma’s wrath.

“Monroe County still needs help; there are still a lot of people hurting,” said Elmira Leto, of Keys Strong. “They’re suffering from depression, losing their jobs because there’s not enough people coming down to visit us.”

Leto said she’s heard from people who don’t have enough money to buy groceries.

“They’re hungry,” she said. “We still have people living in tents.”

Mattresses, sofas and other furniture, along with coffee pots and microwaves, were stacked tall inside a former furniture store on the Overseas Highway for 48 families screened by the nonprofit. It’s furniture that would either have been liquidated or tossed out, said Kaitlin Fitzgerald, of Good 360.

The giveaway drew U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, Monroe County Mayor David Rice, Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent and Marathon Mayor Michelle Coldiron, among other politicians, who took turns posing with the nonprofit leaders.

Sheriff Rick Ramsay’s office brought a team of inmates to help haul out the heaviest objects from the warehouse to awaiting trucks.

“God bless Key West,” said Neugent, of Marathon.. “They were so fortunate. We’ll be rebuilding for the next two years.”

Monroe County jail inmates helped haul mattresses and sofas to trucks on Aug. 10, 2018, at a post-Hurricane Irma furniture giveaway event. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

Gloria Holohan, 84, of Marathon, also lost her home and belongings, having lived on the ocean side of the city in a single-story home, which took on 4.5 feet of water from Irma on Sept. 10, 2017.

“She still can’t move back in,” said her daughter, Gloria Holohan-Malandra. “There’s still a lot of damage down here, still businesses that haven’t reopened. A lot of people don’t realize it.”

Holohan-Malandra said her mother has dementia and doesn’t remember Irma or the reason she’s not in her home. But on Friday, she helped her mom pick out a sofa, a soft aqua-blue one.

Gloria Holohan, originally from Philadelphia, is an Army veteran who served for two years, her daughter proudly told a visitor.

Holohan-Malandra ticked off a list of nonprofits that helped in the wake of the disaster — Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army among them. “The Methodists and the Mormons,” she added.

Many in attendance Friday said the giveaway represents hope for a full recovery.

“The organizations are still here ready to help,” said Coldiron. “This is just another wave of help. There is more that’s coming.”