Big Pine Key continues to rebuild one year after Hurricane Irma
Basil Barna doesn’t want to start over. He’s 75.
Yet all he had, he lost to Hurricane Irma.
His car. His house. Everything.
“The only thing I didn’t lose was my life,” he said.
But one year after the Category 4 storm made landfall, the thought of starting over isn’t even possible.
Like many of his neighbors in a Big Pine Key neighborhood called the Avenues, he’s stuck in an RV as his community struggles to recover.
Big Pine was among the hardest-hit areas in the Keys when Irma swept through Sept. 10, 2017. And many people are still in limbo as they wait to rebuild the homes they lost.
But what Big Pine didn’t lose was community spirit, even after a stubborn, fast-moving brush fire in April tore through 76 acres in over a week. One resident called that a bad Irma flashback.
Despite the slow progress, Barna is determined to stay put.
He still works on yards, landscaping in sun so hot that he sometimes passes out. He lives in an RV next to land he once owned in the Avenues, a working class neighborhood that feels eerily quiet these days.
“I’m lonely,” Barna said.
He’s on Avenue I, next to other RVs filled with survivors who refuse to pack up and leave the hurricane-scarred land.
Barna, who sold fishing and hunting supplies for 30 years, lights up for a moment when he says he plans on returning to fishing. But he sold his land after Irma.
“I’m 75 years old. I don’t want to start all over.”
Starting over is what many Big Pine residents are still waiting to do. The Cat 4 storm destroyed or seriously damaged 3,000 homes across the Florida Keys, clogged canals with debris and left this residential community in the shadows of Key West shattered.
They’re stuck in trailers or RVs on their properties or they’re staying in out-of-town rentals as they await demolition or rebuilding.
Some are living in skeletal partial-rebuilds of homes as the costs of rebuilding in the remote island chain only go up. Many were uninsured or under-insured, and construction in the remote region is costlier than ever.
Many remain in post-storm survivor mode.
“There is a true Big Pine spirit and their resiliency and determination to keep things going and to rebuild has been remarkable,” said Stephanie Kaple, executive director of the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, which exhausted its rental assistance funds after Irma. “My hope for Big Pine is when those homes are rebuilt and the streets are filled with families, it will say, it’s not happening here again.”
It’s been a slow process, though.
“Contractors are so backed up,” said Phillip Decker, the regional coordinator for disaster recovery in Monroe County for the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church, which has outreach programs focused on Big Pine Key and Marathon. “It’s nearly impossible to find someone to do a stick-built house.”
None of the United Methodist clients, 100 or so, have rebuilt.
“If it’s been done, it’s been done privately,” Decker said, of Big Pine Key’s progress.
As the glitzy resorts reopen up and down the island chain, Big Pine has been a forgotten key. The community isn’t a tourist stop, and except for the National Key Deer Refuge, it’s pretty much a blur for people on their way to Key West. As a mostly rural bedroom community 45 minutes from the Southernmost City, Big Pine is easy to pass on the Overseas Highway, and just as easy to overlook.
But this is where the island chain’s working-class families and retirees live. Here, a young couple can buy a decent house for under $250,000. Or find more rental space than is available or affordable farther south. The wealthy can stretch out and build wider and taller.
But housing is different now. Christine King remains in the FEMA trailer she received last December on the lot that once held her permanent trailer. She lives there with two dogs, Milo and Jiggers, who she took in from her next-door neighbors after they died before the storm.
Like others in the region, she had no insurance.
“My whole life I’ve seen natural disasters, from mudslides to tsunamis and fires and tornadoes,” said King, 55, who lives on Avenue G. “I never took my turn. And this is my turn.”
King, who has multiple sclerosis and lives off disability, keeps a positive frame of mind.
Take her refrigerator — which the storm did. She didn’t have to come home to the revolting stench of rotting food like so many others.
“Mine was totally gone,” she said. “Maybe deposited in somebody’s upstairs bedroom with pictures of my family on it. But I never saw it again. I just felt like, good for me. That’s one less mess to clean up.”
She isn’t sure how she will rebuild. But she has a magic wand. And she keeps it by her kitchen window pointed in the direction of her empty lot. Every day, she does what she calls her homework — for FEMA, for the United Methodists, in search of a housing solution.
King hopes to replace her lost home with one of the “Keys cottages” that are going up, one by one, in the Avenues. The new housing comes from the Florida Keys Community Land Trust, a nonprofit started after Irma, funded with $1 million from Big Pine’s Lower Keys Bait & Tackle owners Maggie and Rich Whitcomb.
“We haven’t pulled it off yet,” Maggie Whitcomb said at the unveiling of the first cottage, a 760-square-foot two-bedroom place. “But we’re darn close. The biggest stars in this effort are the locals. That’s why I did this.”
King said she would love to have one of the cottages as a new home — because she hasn’t thought once of packing up and leaving Big Pine.
“You can send Irma through 20 more times and I’ll give her anything I got but I’m not going anywhere,” King said. “She can come and I’ll fight her again and lose again, but I’m not leaving.”
She is grateful she didn’t die in the storm. When she returned home after an evacuation of about 10 days, she took out her Conch shell and blew a foghorn-like blast in celebration.
“Just to let my neighbors know I’m not dead,” she said. “Yay!”
When crews came to tear down her home, she set up her bubble machine and called it “bubbles from the rubble.”
“I knew just from looking at the mess that it would probably be years before it was cleaned up,” King said. “Realistically, you couldn’t look at a mess like that and think, yeah we can get that done in a year.”
King longs for her Avenues neighborhood to return, and has hope it will.
“I really hope for all of my neighbors to get back to the life they were living before,” she said. “They’re not just neighbors, they’re friends. That’s how this neighborhood is. It’ll be a long road but we’ll get there. We all have the same attitude about it, we’re going to stay here and put up with it.”
Vic Charnley is one of those neighbors determined to return to Avenue G. What the 6 feet of floodwaters didn’t ruin, the winds peeled off of his single-wide trailer. The shell remains next door to King’s FEMA trailer.
“I’ve moved beyond the frustrating part,” said Charnley, 72, a retired pastor from Michigan. “I’d love to be back in my house but realistically it’s probably going to take awhile. I’m thinking a couple of years.”
“Some people have just given up. I’ve heard about a third of the workforce has just packed up and left either because they couldn’t rebuild or maybe they just got discouraged by the whole thing.”
Charnley bought the trailer more than a year before Irma hit, and inherited two tenants who were terminally ill. He let them stay on and cut the rent in half at times to help them. When they couldn’t pay that, he let them stay.
After they died, he spruced up the place with plans to move into it from the trailer he has on a rental lot in Marathon.
Charnley is planning to put an 800-square-foot, two-bedroom home on his land — built 12 feet high. A contractor that recently bought a home on Avenue G has offered to build several homes for the neighbors, Charnley said, at a special price.
Due to post-Irma code changes, he says he couldn’t rebuild what he had. The solution is to build higher.
“I don’t want to lose all my stuff a second time,” he said. “The next storm that came through, you’d have to sedate me.”
Charnley, like others on Big Pine, knows the odds of rebuilding. But with plans to go up higher and stronger, he is willing to risk another storm.
“I’ll take my chances.”