FLORIDA KEYS — It didn’t seem bad at first. Key Largo was bright, sunny, and relatively unscathed. There were a few gas stations missing their signs and some toppled billboards. But as I continued south down the Overseas Highway on a roadtrip from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, the view outside my windshield became increasingly dire.
By the time I hit Big Pine Key, about 40 miles north of Key West, there were mountainous piles of debris at regular intervals along the side of the road. Haphazard stacks of abandoned refrigerators, mattresses, and other household goods were mixed with dead palm fronds and chopped up tree roots.
These were the remnants of hurricane Irma which tore through the Keys in September as a Category 4 hurricane. The 130 mile-an-hour winds stripped the leaves off trees and carried away roofs.
There were even upended trailers and boats along the road, spray painted with the words “Irma Junk” on them. These sights were a stark contrast to the pristine blue water that dazzled underneath nearby bridges.
I’d received numerous e-mails from the Florida Keys tourism office throughout October that the Keys, and particularly Key West, were open for business. But when I saw a sign that read “You loot, I shoot” in Summerland, I began to think the missives were premature.
Those piles of roadside debris began to shrink and abate the closer I got to Key West, and when I crossed over into the city I felt like Dorothy being lifted from Kansas and dropped into Oz. I expected Key West to look like a war zone. Instead, the town appeared untouched by Irma. I nearly drove off the road in amazement as I surveyed the old buildings and palm trees that stood defiantly in the sunshine.
I assumed Key West was down for the count. Instead, Fantasy Fest, Key West’s biggest party of the year, was just getting underway and it was business — or pleasure — as usual. Hundreds of revelers dressed as zombies took to the streets on bicycles the muggy October evening I arrived. It was one of those only-in-Key West moments. A few days later, those same streets were filled with party-ready folks of all ages and genders adorned in tutus for Tutu Tuesday.
“What I don’t think most people understand is that the Keys curve in an arc,” said Carol Shaughnessy, a Key West writer and publicist. “So you had Irma making landfall in a way that made less of an impact on Key Largo and Key West.”
The party continued, virtually uninterrupted in Key West, but the biggest challenge now facing the city is letting the world know that it’s still here and intact. There was damage in Key West, but six weeks after Irma tore through it was difficult for an outsider to spot.
“There was a canopy of trees that is now entirely gone,” said Chris Shultz, who runs six restaurants and bars in Key West. “There used to be a shady side of the street. That’s no longer there. What you see now is the result of a very intense effort to clean up the debris.”
Two Cents Restaurant and Pub, one of the establishments that Shultz owns in Key West, was destroyed when a mammoth ficus tree was felled by the strong winds. The tree’s root system was well-established under the restaurant, and when the tree was upended, the roots yanked up the floor. The movement was so violent that it sent a toilet flying across the restaurant.
Outside Two Cents, none of the damage is visible.
“We’ve got to have normalcy, and normalcy in the Key West is having a good time,” Schulz said. “It was important that we were up and running for Fantasy Fest.”
For those unfamiliar with the bacchanalian Fantasy Fest, it’s Key West’s version of Mardi Gras, but held during the off-season to boost tourism. It’s a 10-day celebration that occurs the last week of October. There are nonstop parties, some more family-friendly than others.
According to tourism officials, Fantasy Fest brings approximately $30 million in revenue to the island chain each year. Tourism is a $2.7 billion industry in the Keys, supporting 54 percent of all jobs in the island chain.
Charlie Piefer-Wynott, owner of Key West Info & Concierge Services, said business has been down since Irma, primarily because the perception that Key West was hit as badly as the other Keys, which are slowly digging out. But even in some of the harder hit Keys, many restaurants and attractions are open.
John and Sherry Ryan of Los Angeles said they’ve attended Fantasy Fest for the past eight years, and instead of canceling, decided the best thing they could do to help residents of the Keys was to show up and have fun.
“I had already started working on my costumes before Irma hit,” Sherry Ryan said as she drank a beer at the Green Parrot Bar. “Honestly, we didn’t know what we were going to find when we got down here, but I said to my husband, ‘I’ve always had a good time in Key West. I can’t see how this will be different.’ There’s always a party.”
The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum was in full operation, all 52 cats were lounging about as if nothing had happened. Perhaps the most significant symbol that Key West was open for business was when restoration on the four-ton concrete “Southernmost Point in the Continental U.S.A.” marker was completed in late October. It’s one of the most iconic symbols of the Keys.
Just outside of Key West, businesses that are back on their feet were anxious for tourists to return. Billy Kearins, founder and creative director of an arts center called Coast on Stock Island is planning a benefit concert at the end of November. Although he experienced no significant damage, he said the number of visitors is down dramatically over last year.
Further up the coast in hard-hit Islamorada, Robbie’s, which offers activities such as fishing and boat tours along with a restaurant and shopping, is also down compared to last season. General manager Cailin Reckwerdt said along with less hotel availability, there are simply fewer people making the trip south.
Back in Key West, Fantasy Fest roared along last week with its over-the-top costumes and body painting. In addition to offering an outlet for visitors, it was also a chance for locals from up and down the Keys to take a well-deserved break.
“The numbers at Fantasy Fest seemed pretty close to previous years,” said Fantasy Fest board member Noah Singh. “A lot of rooms in Key West were filled with people from the upper Keys who lost their homes. So there may have been a lot more locals out this year. I think everyone needed a good party.”Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and on Instagram @Chris_Muther.