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For These South Florida Residents, Reminders Of Hurricane Irma Still Linger

Sep 11, 2018
Originally published on September 12, 2018 9:11 am

A 42-year-old woman's neighborhood was devastated because of Irma’s storm surge. Some of her neighbors never returned. 

A 66-year-old woman in Key West is still waiting for her roof to be replaced.

A 43-year old mom's roof leaks and she wants to move out, but she can't afford to. 

A 59-year-old man's home emerged relatively unscathed amidst severe devastation and loss on Big Pine Key.

These four South Florida residents live with daily reminders of Hurricane Irma. 

One year ago, the category 4 storm made landfall in the lower Keys. Big Pine Key saw the worst damage from the storm. 

Irma was the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded outside of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, according to the National Hurricane Center.

DAMAGE FROM THE SURGE

When Kathy Bird, 42, heard that the storm was on its way and heading straight toward the Keys, she knew she needed to get out of town. 

Hurricane Andrew hit when she was 15, and she says it was one of the scariest experiences of her life. Twenty-six years later, she didn’t want to experience another.

"I have two small kids, 8 years old and 13, and I did not want them to go through the experience of hearing the howling and the wind, the objects hitting the windows, which is what I went through with Hurricane Andrew," she said. "I didn't them to suffer that trauma."

She didn’t have shutters so she had to buy wood. But by the time she got to Home Depot, the store was already out of plywood. She was forced to purchase more than a dozen boards for $30 a piece from Offer Up, a mobile app that's a sort of cross between Craigslist and eBay. She paid $600 for all the wood.  

The day before the storm was set to arrive, she packed up her car, her two kids in tow. They drove to Tampa, then when the storm turned north, they left and drove to Georgia. They stayed with a host family for a week. 

One of her neighbors sent her photos of the flooding in her neighborhood. The road had disappeared. Storm surge contaminated with sewage inched up the doors of her and her neighbors' houses. Biscayne Bay became her front yard.  

While her home emerged OK, her neighbors were not so lucky. 

"The flooring and the drywall and the furniture and all those things were basically destroyed," she recalled.

One year later, she still sees the damage Irma left behind. 

And the cost of the storm has left a dent in her finances. Preparation, evacuation and cleanup cost $5,000, some of which she put on credit cards that she’s still paying off.

"I don't know what I'm going to do if another hurricane hits this season," she said.

OUT OF SIGHT, BUT NOT OUT OF MIND

Monica Haskell, 66, was on vacation about an hour outside Portland, Oregon, when she saw the news that a category 4 hurricane was barreling toward her home back in Key West.

She wasn't afraid of the storm — she just didn't know how to prepare, especially from far away. It had been 10 years since Wilma hit and she and her husband, Bill, didn't have many supplies back home.

But she made a few phone calls, and before long, her neighbors had stepped up to help.

"I was super grateful to be able to call on these folks and [for] what they did while they were running around boarding up their own homes and boats," she said. 

After Irma made landfall, the island chain was closed for days. 
 

It took her more than a week to get back to South Florida, as the airport in Key West got back up and running. Finally, she and Bill saw the damage for themselves.

"Seeing all the sailboats and other vessels that had been damaged or destroyed in the storm, tossed up along the shoreline," she said. "Normally you'd see a couple of hundred anchored ... but those that remained didn't look that good."

Now, 12 months later, there are still reminders of Irma — blue tarps on homes in the New Town neighborhood of Key West. At least one resort, Parrot Key, is still closed. The Regal Cinema hasn't reopened either. And her roof is still being repaired.

"It's been six months since the contractor took off the aspalt shingles and put down the first layer of the roofing. Six months later, I'm still waiting for the metal to go on top. And my yard is full of roofing materials," she said. "I think it's hard for contractors in general to find help — to find employees ... because there is such a demand for workers."

Since February, the contractor fixing her roof has told her it’ll be done in a couple days. 

But that's not the only thing that needed repairs over the last year. Her and her husband's two apartments were completely flooded. Their homes required drywall to be removed and reinstalled, and appliances replaced. Bill’s 100-foot Norfolk Pine tree was uprooted.

She has a word of advice for those who are considering staying in and riding out the next storm:

"It's always a good idea to board up and evacuate. If its a big storm, you don't want to be here. It's no fun when there's no water and no power."

NEVER ENDING PROBLEMS

Daisy Capote is sick and tired of seeing brown spots on her ceiling. 

There are some in the master bedroom, a few in the hallway, and one where the kitchen meets the living room. 

Capote, 43, lives with her two teenage boys and her parents, who are nearing their 80s and on a fixed income, in Westchester.

The water marks are leftover from Irma. Every time it rains, new ones appear. 

Immediately after the storm passed, she recalled noticing brown shingles on her driveway. There were shingles all over the back patio too. Her fence fell down. Their backyard was exposed.

But neither she nor her sister, who is also her landlord, can fix the roof on their own. The homeowners’ association, which oversees the units in her complex, has a master insurance policy for the roof, which they pay for through association fees.  

"Your hands are tied because the HOA moves slowly," she said. 

According to Capote, the insurance company has been dragging its heels to fix anything in the complex that still has a blue tarp, so the HOA has contracted an adjuster to fight to get the work done.

It's the biggest reminder of Irma. 

"Despite the fact that it wasn't as powerful [as Andrew], it knocked down a bunch of trees, flooded certain areas," she said. "This storm must have been rougher than they anticipated. I don't really think they calculated the wind."

She wants to move, but can’t afford to.

She says it would cost $7,000 to pick up her family and relocate. 

“I just want it to be over,” she said. “The whole process has been badly maintained.”

HARDENING THE HOUSE HELPED

Big Pine Key has been eerily quiet since Hurricane Irma.

When Mark Ebenhoch looks out from his second story deck, five empty sand lots baking in the sun look back at him. Houses and families used to be there.

Not anymore. 

More than 4,000 homes in the Keys were destroyed or majorly damaged. 

"We thought we'd be alright, but it didn't turn out that way."

Ebenhoch, 59, remembers driving from Key West back to his home on Big Pine the day after Irma made landfall in Cudjoe Key, a mere 10 miles from where he lived. 

He escaped to Key West for the brunt of the storm and had heard that the Avenues on Big Pine Key, where he lived, had been leveled. He remembered hearing reports through the local radio station that "there was nothing left."

"As we're traveling along, we're seeing the destruction got worse and worse out of Key West," he said. "Then we got to Big Pine, it was a mess."  

His elevated house was still standing. It was an exception in the midst of lost roofs, homes, and trees. 

He owes that to the roughly $30,000 he invested into hardening his home, installing hurricane windows, replacing his old roof with a new steel one, re-siding with fiber cement board and putting a new deck along the windward side of the house.

The intrusive saltwater didn’t get into the top floor of his home, but the bottom floor looked like the inside of a washing machine. Cabinets were off the walls, his two classic cars submerged in oil and mud, power tools destroyed, yearbooks from high school and the military ruined.

He felt lucky and guilty. He still had a place to live.

The elderly woman who lived behind him never came back. He has no idea where the people across the street, who had lived there more more than a decade, went either.

All that remains are memories of what once was.

There’s green back now, but it’s nothing like it used to be. Dead trees still standing.

“It’s come a long way, but it’s got so much further to go.”

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