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‘Very long time to get back to normal’ in the Lower Keys

A boat is grounded on a Little Torch Key following Hurricane Irma.
A boat is grounded on a Little Torch Key following Hurricane Irma.

Lower Keys like Big Pine, Little Torch, Summerland, Cudjoe and Sugarloaf were among the hardest hit by Hurricane Irma.

The devastation caused after the massive cyclone’s eye passed over Cudjoe Key at daybreak Sunday as a Category 4 and the deluge of the storm’s surge that followed is difficult to fathom.

“The damage is immense,” said Big Pine Key resident Vivian Rubio, who stayed in her all-concrete house with her husband Danny throughout the storm. “This is going to take a very long time to get back to normal.”

After surveying water lines left on several homes on Little Torch Key, it appears storm surge was every bit of 10 feet. Boats were overturned or carried to land. Underneath thick mats of debris lay downed, frayed power lines mixed in with just about anything else that was once inside people’s homes.

A slippery blanket of marl from the bottom of the Gulf was carried to yards and streets and made driving conditions on the island similar to that of driving on snow and ice in northern states. One Little Torch street was littered with dead fish, including dozens of baby barracudas.

Overhead, military helicopters passed over damaged homes and hovered low to check for survivors. The death toll is up to eight people “due to and during the storm,” said Cammy Clark, county public information officer.

About 2,000 Army National Guard soldiers were sent to Monroe County “to help with communications and work at the county distribution points for food and water,” Clark said.

People were hard to find in much of the Lower Keys subdivisions by mid-week. Many residents heeded the call from government officials to get out ahead of Irma’s arrival and evacuated. The ones who stayed lived with no electricity, air conditioning, cell phone service, internet, water and flushing toilets. It could take days, weeks, even months for some of these amenities to be restored.

For some, like Maria Carmen Rodriguez of Big Pine Key, conditions were even more dire. She stayed at Sugarloaf School on Sugaloaf Key, which was designated a shelter by Monroe County. On Monday she and her son Frank returned home to a flooded trailer on Avenue I and now have no roof over their heads.

“We can’t be there. We’re staying outside the place” Rodriguez said.

Joseph Pilotti owns two side-by-side trailers on Avenue I — both are now almost uninhabitable.

“The flooding was way up in my trailer,” he said. “Probably up to my couch. Both trailers I own, they’re both destroyed. Everything’s ruined. The washer and dryer. It’s all under water.”

Meanwhile, frustration continues to swell as residents were not allowed to return to the Middle and Lower Keys as of Wednesday. Only Upper Keys residents and business owners north of mile marker 73 were given the go-ahead to come back.

At one check point in southern Islamorada Wednesday evening, police threatened to arrest a group of Marathon men who somehow made it past the first checkpoint in Florida City trying to get home.

And in Florida City, tensions grew between those camping out in their cars waiting for the announcement they can go home and the police manning the checkpoints.

“The police don’t want us here, and I don’t want to be here,” said Dan Fermaglich, who lives in Key West. “I just want to go home and rebuild.”

“You can bet that the next time an evacuation order is given, people will not abide,” Fermaglich added.

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