Joe Ferrero and wife Joann arrived back at their trailer home here Sunday with a brand new generator, cleaning supplies and food, ready to scrub up and move back in.
They had been up north for Hurricane Irma, and neighbors told them damage at their place was limited to two windows.
Reality was worse — much worse. The hurricane-force winds that had raked across this tiny island punched out windows and let in gallons of sea spray and rain. Three large palm trees landed on the roof, poking holes.
Their house was a total loss, Joe said, sitting outside, a bit stunned. Behind him hung a decorative life preserver that read “Another Day in Paradise.”
Next step? Ferrero had no idea.
“Maybe we’ll get a big tent,” he said.
The Ferreros didn’t have insurance for the trailer, but Ferrero said he’ll figure something out.
“Everybody’s OK, what are you going to do?” he said.
That’s the dilemma that faces thousands of Keys residents, many of whom were allowed home for the first time Sunday, more than a week after Hurricane Irma ripped through the area. Many lived in the uninsurable trailers and mobile homes that Irma tossed aside or tore to matchsticks. Stilt homes or new construction properties fared better, even on the hardest hit parts of the islands — the middle and lower Keys.
A Baptist church that serves the islands’ Haitian community lost its sign, its storage shed and side porch, but pastor Joe Jean Pierre was more worried about his congregation.
“We are not lucky, we are blessed,” said Pierre, pastor at La Premiere Eglise Evangelique Baptiste Haitienne de Key West, which is on Big Coppitt Key. “You see so much devastation all around.”
Pierre said he’s worried about his nearly 200 parishioners, many of whom clean houses or wash dishes at island retreats. Affordable housing is hard enough to come by on the increasingly pricey chain of islands.
Homes were lost, and many who evacuated have lost more than a week of pay and spent money on hotels, gas and food.
“It’s going to be difficult for the recovery,” he said.
It was the same story up and down the chain of islands.
Barbara Gordillo drove straight from Miami to her Stock Island home the moment she was allowed. She was relieved to see her home was OK, with water and power already restored, but the inconvenience of a week on the mainland was a financial strain.
“The hotel, plus the food — I have three kids — now I have to restock my house with everything because there’s nothing,” she said as she stood in line in front of the Winn-Dixie.
“We were expecting to stay [in Miami] a few days, maybe one or two. Not a whole week,” she said. “I won’t evacuate again.”
Sherry Pelletier, 50, who cares for her son Wade Hawks, 23, who has autism, said she’s worried that services in Key West have yet to be restored even as thousands return to the island.
Power to her Bahama Village home came on Saturday night, but she said she was anxious that her pharmacy hadn’t yet opened and her son would need medication soon.
“They should know they’re coming back to an island that’s 20 percent up; it’s not 100 percent back,” she said of those returning Sunday. “There are lines at the gas stations and for food. These people have no idea what they’re coming home to.”
As the physical recovery began, there were efforts to repair the soul and the psyche, as well. A Mass attended by about 30 people Sunday at San Pablo Catholic Church in Marathon brought survivors together to pray and help each other. The church, also serving as a donation drop-off site for food, water and other basic necessities, had no electricity but is structurally sound.
Farther west on Big Pine Key, the devastation was sporadic, leading some locals to think a tornado might have come through. Robert “Bob” Fiorile, 72, showed up Sunday to find his and his wife’s stilt home of 13 years a wreck. Half the roof was peeled off down to the rafters. Mud coated the entire first-floor garage.
The canal-facing side of his Florida room blew in, pulverizing the walls, shattering the windows and scattering cotton-candy pink fiberglass insulation into the house.
Inside, the couple’s two bedrooms — the Italian room and the French room — are decorated with art representing each country and photos from their travels there. The French room is immaculate, but a chunk of the Italian room’s ceiling now lays in the couple’s bed, spotlit by the bright Florida sunbeams leaking in.
Upstairs in the loft, his daughter, Danielle “Dani” VanHoven, peeled apart baby photos of her four children, most now in their teens. Water damage stuck the old film photos together, leaving unsightly orange splotches where Irma sealed them together.
“Even though it’s messed up, I’m going to keep it,” she said. “You can see little bits of it — there’s Tyler’s face. It’s OK. You gotta look on the bright side.”
Books, magazines and framed family photos lay scattered throughout the house next to chunks of window and wall.
“Here’s what it used to look like,” Fiorile said, holding up a photo of him and his wife Geraldine posing in their kitchen with Thanksgiving dinner five or so years ago.
“It was nice,” he said, his voice wavering.
“It’ll be nice again,” his daughter said, propping her broom against a wall and sweeping her father into her arms.
Fiorile’s coworker and best friend on the island, 42-year-old Todd Brown, were there Sunday with Dani’s friend Billy to start patching up the worst of the damage. The three men unfurled a blue tarp and hollered at VanHoven to hand them supplies as they worked to cover the gaping hole in the roof.
As the men hammered at the roof, VanHoven rummaged in the ruins of the Florida room. She plunged her hand under a nail-studded section of wall and pulled out a scraggly alocasia, its roots barely clinging to a shattered, brightly colored ceramic pot shaped like a turtle.
“Look at that. It’s OK,” she said. “I’m going to have a Dani plant.”
The day VanHoven was born, her father’s mother brought the new family the alocasia, which they christened “the Dani plant.” Over 42 years, the family has clipped off sections and regrown the offspring for friends and family.
And now, even after the devastation of Hurricane Irma, the original still stood.
“I can’t believe it made it,” she said.