FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE, THERE HAS BEEN A MASSIVE media magnifying glass on the Florida Keys over the past couple of weeks. While we’re no strangers to national attention (e.g., Fantasy Fest photos all over
USA Today and CNN’s annual feature of our epic, shoe-dropping New Year’s celebration), Hurricane Irma has cast a bit of a shadow over our typically sunny streets. Though The Weather Channel showed nearly obsessive footage of Key West in the days before Irma blighted our beautiful island home, what has been very conspicuously absent in the media aftermath has been the local community’s response in the days immediately following Irma’s landfall. Power was down, trees were felled everywhere you looked, and running water was scarce and far from potable, and yet fewer than 24 hours after the storm, local business owners were opening their doors to make sure those who hadn’t evacuated were fed, sheltered, and in good company.
In the hours before Hurricane Irma flooded Key West with her aquatic fury, while most businesses were frantically boarding up their windows and lining their doors with bags of sand, a number of bars and restaurants stayed open until the 11th hour, opting to serve the masses rather than secure their property. Blue Macaw (804 Whitehead St.) was one of those businesses pumping out food and letting locals pillage its legendary Bloody Mary bar until the gale force winds threatened to knock all the hot sauce bottles off the wall. And if what it did before the storm wasn’t enough, the following week when the wind and rain had abated and power had been restored, Blue Macaw opened right back up with happy hour drink prices and hot food all day long (well, at least until curfew kicked in at dusk).
Bars and restaurants weren’t the only establishments that extended themselves to care for Key West’s residents. Hotels, including the La Concha (430 Duval St.) and the Marriot Beachside Hotel (3841 N. Roosevelt Blvd.), served as both nerve centers and storm shelters for hundreds of people for days on end. Both hotels are fortresses that didn’t hesitate to open their doors (and their plush rooms) to anyone who remained, free of charge and with no questions asked. The Marriott Beachside, in fact, is such a storm-proof bunker that even the Key West Police Department and the various local utilities companies used the property as their makeshift headquarters, monitoring Irma before she hit and dispatching aid as needed in the aftermath.
Beau Sharpe, a bartender at Mary Ellen’s, spent Irma at the Marriott Beachside with his girlfriend Robin and three of their family’s dogs. Before the storm, Mary Ellen’s stayed open as long as it could. And as soon as he was able, Mary Ellen’s head chef and general culinary wizard Patrick Rooney opened up the kitchen, cleaned out the walkin, and started cooking up everything within arm’s reach and serving anyone who needed a meal.
The day after Irma hit, Beau hit the road and headed downtown. “When I rode around on my bike, I was actually surprised to see that some businesses were actually open,” Beau marvels. “801 and Jack Flat’s were both open and serving food. I also heard that Fogarty’s was feeding people as well. Later on in the week when we still didn’t have cellular coverage, businesses with hard landlines like the Green Parrot opened up their windows and doors to let people use the phone and call their loved ones.
“As soon as he could get there, Chef Paddy opened up Mary Ellen’s,” Beau says. “We had a lot of food in the walk-in that was at risk of spoiling, so the initial idea was to sell as much food as possible at half price. Then, as soon as we got running water the next Saturday, we opened up for breakfast. We offered a free continental breakfast with doughnuts, fruit, yogurt, and pretty much any food we could get our hands on plus $4 mimosas and Bellinis, with the caveat that anyone who wanted anything on the rocks had to bring their own ice.” He chuckles.
The common theme behind everything that happened in the days after Irma, when no one could make contact with the outside world and there was no one leaving or entering the island, was the shared concern everyone who stayed felt for one another. “In the couple of days after the storm, we all rode around and hoped to run into friends,” Beau describes. “It was a lot of looking out and checking in, taking care of one another, and asking after friends we hadn’t been able to contact. We all stopped into any building that was open and checked on total strangers to make sure they had ice and water. Everyone left shared any resources they possessed.
“For example, we knew that we could get ice for Mary Ellen’s from 801 Bourbon because another friend had walked by, seen the mountain of ice, and made sure to let us know there was enough for everybody who needed it,” Beau continues. “Everybody was constantly telling everyone on the streets where they could access the things they needed. Our only lines of communication were the radio and the good old coconut telegraph – it was the biggest game of ‘Telephone’ ever!” He laughs. “As always, sometimes the information was right, sometimes it was just rumors, but the important thing is that we were all sharing any information we had with anyone we could share it with.”
You would think after a natural disaster everyone would be a little shell-shocked, but Key West’s overall mood was as resilient as ever. “Everyone seemed tired but so happy and jovial!” Beau says. “We were all gathered telling hurricane stories and playing the hurricane version of 20 Questions – ‘Where’d you hole up?’ ‘How’s your house?’ – and just checking on each other and making sure everyone had the supplies they needed wherever they had settled. That’s how it was all around town, too. I walked by 801 Bourbon and everyone was just hanging out outside, sharing war stories. It was just good to see everyone out and about and everyone was so genuinely happy to run into one another.”
For those of us who weren’t here to check on our people and our properties in person, the utilities companies and the local government, including Keys Energy and the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners, continuously posted updates on social media to placate those watching the goings-on from afar. Every piece of information was considered critical and progress in any form or amount was celebrated like it was a major step forward. Any indication that things were returning to “normal” (a quality we don’t typically prize here in the Florida Keys) was a sure sign that we were all going to be ok, no matter what. Hell, even Paradise Tattoo (627 Duval St.) opened up the week after the storm to brand the body art inclined with hurricane-themed mementos. Although its artists surely felt the sting of lost income, half of the proceeds from the day went directly to disaster relief. Paradise Tattoo’s staff also loaded up a trailer with supplies, including water, food, and air mattresses, and distributed them from the shop during the week.
It is impossible to overstate the love and support the Florida Keys community gives so selflessly to its people and to the businesses that profit from our welcoming and inclusive reputation and that, in turn, give back so much where they can. It’s this overwhelming amount of love, evident in all of the aid given freely (in every sense of the word) in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, that sustained us, that fortified us, and that will ultimately ensure that Key West and the Florida Keys will always bounce back from any storm stronger and better than ever. ¦