More than a month after Hurricane Irma slammed into the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm, residents are still digging out and BoatUS is continuing its boat salvage efforts.
The Catastrophe Response Team has moved into the Keys and says it will be there until the end of the month, said BoatUS public affairs vice president Scott Croft.
“They said they’ve done hundreds of salvages in the Keys,” Croft told Trade Only Today. “They’ve done hundreds of boat assessments and sent checks. To expedite payment to customers, we write it up before it’s salvaged so folks can get their money faster. After they receive their check, we go get the boat. That’s something we’ve done a little different with this storm. Because of the volume we wanted to see people get paid as quickly as possible.”
“It’s crazy,” Shawn Zelko, who works with TowBoatUS in Big Pine Key, told Trade Only last week. “I’ve worked so much with [TowBoatUS] because it’s been so busy.”
Zelko had also worked as a mechanic at the Sea Center, a marina on Big Pine Key, when it was operational, but the indoor facility there needs to be completely gutted. All of his tools were inside.
“All my hand tools are OK, but all the electric and power tools are all gone,” Zelko said. “The expensive things got ruined.”
He also remained without a home; his former home is uninhabitable, and most of his belongings are gone. He has been staying with friends.
“The problem is, you see places starting to open up in Key West, but it’s not smart of me to go live in Key West, working in Big Pine,” Zelko said. “Hopefully, eventually some things will open up in Big Pine or around that area. Until then, it’s going to be tough. The other option I have is I could put a camper at the farm.”
Zelko spoke to Trade Only on his way back from retrieving his horses, which he’d brought to safety to ride out the storm. Though the barn was destroyed, a church and a contractor from Key West offered labor and tools to help get it back up and running.
Zelko was one of several people who thought the Keys had reopened too quickly to tourism on Oct. 1. Key West was operational, but between Cudjoe Key and Marathon, things were devastated. Tourists have to drive through those hard-hit areas, and many were treating the wreckage as a tourist attraction.
Here is drone footage taken by Eric Isaacs, of Summerland Key, before and after Hurricane Irma.
“It’s a sideshow for everybody now,” Zelko said. “Now traffic’s crazy. They’re still trying to clear the road, there are big piles, and construction equipment all up and down the roads. I was getting frustrated leaving the Keys yesterday. They’re just pushing for everybody to get back there. But for the people who live where we are, it’s a nightmare.”
Zelko understands that Key West is the moneymaker of the Keys.
“But I don’t like people stopping,” he said. “The roadblocks aren't up, so people can go anywhere. Some of the roads, if you can get a car up it, you’re lucky. And now you’ve got people driving by, taking pictures and just looking. They probably should’ve at least kept the roads blocked up a little longer.”
The arrival of tourists also compounds the housing shortage.
Daniel Hutchinson, whose father-in-law, Darryl Wallraven, lives in Marathon, has been raising funds and awareness about the devastation in Big Pine Key. Wallraven’s home is not habitable, and the vacation rental he was staying in had a reservation for this week, leaving him without a home.
“I just think it was a little too soon,” said Hutchinson. “I think they wanted to get Key West open, but I just don’t think they thought about the people in between. You see people with New York license plates, you know, just driving through Big Pine. They’re not there to help or anything, they’re just there to look.”
Hutchinson and his wife have been traveling from their home in Deerfield Beach each weekend to help residents clear debris, splitting their time between Wallraven’s home and driving around to find people in need of assistance.
They’ve also set up a Don’t Forget Big Pine fund and a Facebook page because they’ve been troubled by the lack of national news about the area.
Amanda Crawford, of NBC affiliate WESH, Channel 2, has been tweeting from Big Pine Key since the storm. She said Monday that people were losing homes to make room for tourists.
Monroe County Commissioners told Crawford they expect to lose between 15 and 20 percent of the population after Irma.
“Just because it’s not in the [national] news doesn’t mean it’s over,” Hutchinson said. “One tragedy just overshadows another. You just keep getting forgotten.”