Officials in the Florida Keys reopened the region to tourists on Oct. 1, but some residents of the hardest-hit areas believe the choice was made too soon after Hurricane Irma struck Sept. 10 as they grapple with the widespread devastation the storm inflicted.
“It’s crazy that … whoever the powers that be gave in and started allowing tourists in,” TowBoatUS co-owner Lisa Freestone told Trade Only Today on Wednesday. “It’s ridiculous. They should not have let them in yet. They should’ve given us three more weeks.”
Big Pine Key was still “a war zone” on Oct. 1, according to a Facebook post by Daniel Hutchinson that was accompanied by dozens of photos showing the widespread devastation people there suffered and the mountains of debris that still litter every road.
The winds from Irma that struck Big Pine Key were a sustained 150 to 180 mph and they caused substantial damage.
Traveling to Key West by car, tourists have no choice but to go southwest from Miami Beach on A1A through Key Largo, Islamorada, Duck Key, Marathon and lastly Big Pine Key before eventually crossing to Cudjoe Key, where the eye struck, and then Sugarloaf Key, before reaching Key West.
Big Pine Key saw stronger winds from Irma than any other place in the continental United States — sustained speeds of 150 to 160 mph. The eye hit between Big Pine Key and Cudjoe Key, putting Big Pine in the nasty northwestern quadrant of the storm.
“We rode the eyewall and had the worst winds,” Freestone said.
“Totally not ready yet,” she said. “Just because they feel the need to have tourists come in, they don’t think about it, but they have to drive through the hardest-hit areas to get there.”
Meanwhile, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued a statement on Wednesday urging people to keep plans for fishing trips and vacations in the state, saying that despite the effects of Hurricane Irma, recreational and commercial saltwater fishing operations are reopening for business.
Although charter for-hire and commercial fishing operators were hit hard by the storm, many in these industries are back up and running and ready to show residents and visitors why Florida remains the Fishing Capital of the World, the FWC said.
“Keep those fishing trips and vacations on the books if you can. These fishermen and women are ready to work and need your business now more than ever,” said FWC commissioner Robert Spottswood in a statement. “We are going to come back stronger than ever, but we need your help.”
Visit Florida CEO Ken Lawson said, “As the No. 1 industry in our state, tourism is critical to Florida’s economy, employing over 1.4 million Floridians. Fishermen, fishing captains and fishing charters are an integral part of our industry’s success as they showcase the beauties of Florida’s waters and outdoors to visitors all across the world. There is no better time than now to book a fishing trip in Florida and reel in some fun.”
But Freestone disagrees that the area is ready and said the waterways are still a complete mess in her region.
“The waterways are still filthy, some canals still clogged up, water is still just as dirty as can be,” she said, leaving boaters “running blind.”
It’s been difficult for residents there to watch national news accounts of Irma’s aftermath that seem to focus solely on Key West and ignore the most devastated Keys, Freestone said.
“They’re all talking about Key West and the Upper Keys,” Freestone said. “You’re not seeing or hearing everything out of the hardest-hit areas.”
The worst part to Freestone is that the devastation and wreckage has become a sightseeing attraction for tourists, who began rolling through neighborhoods on the day officials invited them to return.
Since then, Freestone said, she has seen cars with out-of-state tags driving slowly down neighborhood roads, snapping pictures of the wreckage. She even contemplated posting a sign reading: “If you don’t live on this road, we don’t want you here."
“It’s an invasion of privacy almost,” Freestone added. “Why do you feel the need to take pictures of our pain and what we’re going through? You know? It’s just not right. They should’ve just given us a little more time.”