Late Saturday evening, Matt Finn was using his pocketknife to rip the waterlogged drywall out of his Big Pine Key Home.
His mattress was set up outside on his back lawn. His generator powered his coffee maker. Some of his most prized possessions — including a stuffed baby alligator his grandfather gave him — were drying in the hot Florida air. And he was the lucky one.
He pointed to the Gulf of Mexico and said, “Between me and the open water, there were three more houses. There’s nothing there.”
He made it to his home, an area of the Florida Keys all other residents will be allowed to return to starting 7 a.m. Sunday, late Friday night after weathering Hurricane Irma near Naples.
He found devastation.
Downed power lines criss-crossed his streets, mobile homes were lifted from their concrete pads and flung on their sides, and boats were everywhere they shouldn’t be — on top of houses, underwater and blocking roads.
Finn, 58, pointed to a fishing boat three doors down resting against a home.
“I think his boat went up and over my roof because there’s some blue — that’s the bottom color of his boat — on my roof,” Finn said.
What Finn found awaits many of his neighbors, although some parts of the keys — like Key West — were left relatively unscathed.
As authorities prepare to reopen the entire Keys to residents by Sunday, they warned that resources remain spotty and that the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Irma will take weeks, if not months.
Water, electricity and sewage are intermittent at best, Monroe County Mayor George Nugent told reporters in a press conference in Marathon Saturday afternoon. Homes might not be habitable. If residents can afford to do so, he added, they should consider going back to the mainland.
“The Keys are not what you left several days ago when you evacuated,” he said.
But the warning is unlikely to deter the anxious, angry and impatient still waiting on the roads to go back to their homes and assess the damage Irma wrought. In the last few days, many have begged officers stationed at a checkpoint in the middle of the Overseas Highway to let them through without success.
Judith Silva, whose family owns King Seafood Market and Restaurant in Marathon, was among those agitating to be let back into the Keys. She was turned away repeatedly at the Mile Marker 74 checkpoint but spent Thursday and Friday night at a shelter at Island Christian School at MM 81 with about 60 other mid-Keys residents who were eager to return.
When word came early Saturday that they could go, the shelter emptied in minutes, although most of Marathon is still without power.
“I was worried about going back as soon as possible to save as much as I can,” she said. “The mud, the mold, it gets worse with time.”
Silva lost her home to a fire in February so the family was already in temporary housing and will likely return to the shelter to sleep. “It’s a lot of work,” she said. “But I’m glad to be back.”
Like many in the tight-knit community, she was thinking of others even as she prepared to rebuild her business.
All the seafood that was thawing in her inoperable freezers? Donated to the local Elks Lodge, which was preparing and delivering food to first responders and residents in need of a hot meal.
“She is a godsend, a godsend,” said Dani Crowley, 48, the lodge’s head of house, who along with her husband, Jim, had been cooking for days. “They’ve lost everything but giving what they have to someone.”
Crowley, a Marathon native whose house lost its walls and roof, was still waiting until she had fed the emergency workers to start her own restoration efforts.
“We help each other out,” Crowley said. “That’s the way we do things around here.”
Up the street, Austin Christie tipped over a red Coca-Cola mini fridge, spilling out warm seawater and hot cans of soda.
“That’s so disgusting,” said his 21-year-old sister Krizia.
“At least it’s helping with the mud,” said his mother, 50-year-old Kristine.
With no running water, the West Kendall family has relied on the stale, stinky seawater to wash the thick layer of mud Hurricane Irma brought to their Marathon house. The mud covers the floors, the bottom of cabinets, even inside the bathroom sink.
They got to work lugging everything the storm destroyed.
Kristine, a Miami-Dade teacher, has been going to the concrete block house on Mackerel Avenue in the Ocean Isles Fishing Village since she was 15.
Then she and her husband, Bart, a 56-year-old Miami-Dade County principal, bought the place from her parents. They gutted it and rebuilt it. Rebuilding after Irma will be the third home makeover.
“Once when we got it, once after [Hurricane] Wilma and now, round three,” Kristine said. “One thing’s for sure. We will rebuild. Someone asked me, ‘Will you sell?’ Uh, no.”
Even with “everything ruined,” the Christie home is one of the lucky ones in the village. A 20-foot fishing boat was flung from the attached dock three streets back to a knee-high drift of seaweed.
The recreation center, where snowbirds play cards in the winter, is missing walls, windows and everything inside.
Doors and windows were sucked off houses. Only foundations remain for many others. The streets were covered in twisted appliances, waterlogged books and pots and pans.
“We had granite counter tops,” Kristine said. “I don’t know where they are.”
Each home was tagged with a neon green piece of paper showing that search and rescue had cleared the space.
“No dead bodies,” Kristine said.
As Keys residents return, officials said, they should be as self-sufficient as possible.
“Have all your supplies,” Gastesi said at the press conference, including bringing medications and bug spray in addition to water and food. “Supplies are very limited.”
Supplies weren’t the issue for Michael Jennings, who took three days and 2,000 feet of rope to tie up his boat, but it was worth it.
When he returned to Marathon Saturday morning, Gypsy, where he and his wife Debbie live, was still floating in roughly the same position he left her. He attributes it to two things: the mangroves he tied up to and the good Lord’s mercy.
“I believe God just put his hands on it and held ‘em,” he said, choking up a little. “There’s no other reason for it to be here.”
The family business, well-known Mike’s Smoked Fish and Dip, didn’t fare as well. The two economy-sized refrigerators and a brand-new freezer — with the 600 pounds of fish inside — floated away from the store. “Everything did,” Debbie said.
Most of the ships in the small harbor were torn up. Some were missing their roofs or their masts, and others were on top of trailers in the mobile home park next door. The houses and boats that survived the storm had no power and no running water.
“Drunken John lost his boat,” Tati Paffenbarger, a friend of the Jennings, chimed in. “Dinghy and everything.”
To reach his boat, Mike commandeered a nearby overturned dinghy (the Sea-Era) and, with the help of some friends, made it onto the Gypsy. Inside he found his boat in good shape, minus a little flooding and a generator on the fritz.
The main casualty was $700 of bread he and Debbie bought from their business partners and friends, Alex and Rica, who showed up to check on their friends and bring ice cold Coronas.
The group gathered on the docks and clinked their cans together under the sweltering sun.
“Screw that bitch,” Mike said. “We’ll rebuild!”
“We’ve got no choice,” Debbie added. “Cheers to all of us for making it.”
Tents and campers will likely start popping up around the islands as people settle in to rebuild their homes, he added, and some businesses have started reopening. Many retailers, however, are running on limited hours.
“We had a Publix open till 5 yesterday. I never thought I’d be so happy about that.”
A curfew has been issued in the Upper Keys from 10 p.m. to sunrise, with a curfew everywhere else in the Keys starting at dusk, said Marty Senterfitt, the county’s director of emergency management. Four shelters remain open in the Keys and a boil-water alert has also been issued throughout the islands.
“Whatever you do, do not drink the water,” Senterfitt reminded. It’s “only for sanitation purposes.”
Senterfitt added that Fishermen’s Community Hospital, which sustained some structural damage, has brought in a mobile hospital to service those coming back to the Middle Keys. Monroe County hopes to reopen county offices, constitutional offices and courts by Sept. 25, he added.
Those who can should try and volunteer, with information available at keysrecovery.org, he added. “Be prepared to be part of the solution.”