BIG PINE KEY, Fla. — People on Big Pine Key, Fla., are still assessing the widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Irma, which slammed into the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 10.
Irma killed 14 in the Keys as she barreled through, the Monroe County Medical Examiner told the Miami Herald, leveling homes and sending boats as far as a mile from where they’d been left.
“You can’t drink the water,” Shawn Zelko, who works with the TowBoatUS Response Team in Big Pine Key, told Trade Only Today on Thursday. “It’s still hell down here. There’s so many homeless people down here. There are a lot of people who still don’t have power.”
A drive south with BoatUS from Miami Beach onto Big Pine Key revealed the catastrophic wreckage that residents were only just beginning to comprehend as they began to sort through the rubble.
“Some of these boats are a mile away from their location” before the storm, said Capt. Kevin Freestone, who owns the TowBoatUS franchise. “It’s like an apocalypse down here.”
Though his own home was damaged by the storm, Freestone has been trying to run out ahead of the BoatUS CAT teams to clear debris so the teams can access the boats they need to assess as they wend their way through the state.
The CAT teams were working in Miami Beach this morning and working feverishly to move south. Many members were on their 21st day of storm assessment and had come directly from surveying wreckage inflicted in Texas by Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm on Aug. 25.
Freestone echoed the sentiments of many residents here — they will rebuild, they will take this in stride, and right now it’s just about helping people most in need.
“I’ve traveled around the state helping out other people, and now, it’s in my backyard,” Freestone said.
In this video Bill Pike, of Trade Only sister publication Power & Motoryacht, asks Freestone about the storm.
Surprisingly — although probably not to the 4,250 residents — the people here also refer to the things they’ve collected and built over a lifetime as “just stuff.” Except when it came to the boat.
Alan Cox and his girlfriend, Misty Klock, worked to clear debris from their home Thursday and assessed what would need to be done. The home had no walls around the entire first story, much like many of their neighbors.
The sounds were those of people trying to dig out and repair — several chain saws were growling, there was banging as people hammered on hot rooftops, and neighbors called out to one another to offer help moving large pieces of debris.
Cox and Klock smiled, offering reporters cold water despite being under a mandatory boil order and having no electricity on a day that, with the humidity, felt close to 100 degrees.
They both spoke optimistically about how they’d be able to dig out, little by little, and put their home and life back together, but the real issue for them was their 2005 Sailfish 218.
“Only thing I cared about was the boat,” Cox said. “We got real lucky. As long as the boat was OK, I was fine.”
“It was missing one cushion,” Klock said, laughing.
Carol Hawkins was less fortunate. She and her daughter, Jennifer Hawkins-Dydra, and son-in-law Jason Dydra had just gotten back to their home an hour before a BoatUS van carrying two reporters rolled up. The three were still taking in the damage.
“We’re literally in shell shock,” Carol Hawkins said.
Despite the many downed trees, pieces of metal hanging at awkward angles, even a medical insurance card from someone in Louisiana, the thing that Carol Hawkins wanted to talk about was the boat. When Scott Croft, public affairs vice president at BoatUS, introduced herself, she invited him and the reporters to take a look at her catamaran, a 2001 Glacier Bay.
They’d seen satellite images and knew the boat was partly submerged, sticking up at an awkward angle, and had known it was badly damaged. But seeing her for the first time was something else.
The boat was still insured under her late husband’s name. “It’s been less than a year,” she said, visibly struggling not to become emotional. The boat had been their refuge and was the thing that kept him close, Carol Hawkins said.
“I don’t want to lose her,” she said as she teared up. “I just don’t want to lose her.”