Possessions crushed under dozers’ tread

Donna Martini holds a framed photograph her friend, professional photographer Heather Allen, shot of Venice, Italy. Allen’s Sea Breeze RV and Marina home was destroyed by Hurricane Irma.
Donna Martini holds a framed photograph her friend, professional photographer Heather Allen, shot of Venice, Italy. Allen’s Sea Breeze RV and Marina home was destroyed by Hurricane Irma.

Most residents of the Sea Breeze and San Pedro trailer parks lost just about everything that was inside their homes when Hurricane Irma’s massive surge flooded the oceanfront subdivision on Plantation Key earlier this month.

Now, what was left outside is mostly gone, too, bulldozed days after the parks’ corporate owners told residents they could buy new trailers — when the devastated property is ready to be rebuilt upon — at or below cost. Sun Communities Inc., the Michigan mobile-home retailer that owns Sea Breeze and San Pedro, gave residents 30 days on Sept. 19 to clear their things before what remains at the parks gets demolished. But that window apparently didn’t apply to people’s things left outside in between units — possessions residents say they wanted and thought they had time to collect.

“We’re already seeing their word kind of shake a little bit because of the bulldozing they’ve done between the units,” said Billy Quinn, whose trailer directly facing the ocean was destroyed by Irma.

“Mine was at the very end on the ocean. The storm blew it away. It’s totally gone. It’s down to the bare metal frame,” Quinn said. “There’s not even a side frame left. Can you imagine coming back to this? Just a bare metal frame.”

Since Quinn has little to nothing left to salvage from his home, he’s been spending the days since the Sept. 10 storm helping his neighbors gather their belongings so they can move on — a process he said was made more difficult by the bulldozing.

“Now, this was personal property, and they’re bulldozing it. They told us they’d give us 30 days to clean everything up, and they gave four to seven days, somewhere in there, and they just came in and started bulldozing everything,” Quinn said. “That’s all personal property. I don’t see how they could not give people a chance to come in here and grab their things.”

Patty Purdo said she thought she had time to clear out her lot, which included lots of plants and a shell garden. With many friends in the Upper Keys, she’s had no shortages of places to crash while she looks for a new place to live, so rather than immediately pack up her lot, she’s been helping neighbors, particularly those who evacuated and have not returned. The only thing she had done to her trailer, which was made uninhabitable by saltwater, was to collect items she wanted to keep and place them outside to dry.

“So I put all my stuff here, just to dry it out, and I thought I had 30 days, so I’ll come back and get it. So I came back Sunday morning, and they had bulldozed everything out of our lots. All of my belongings, everything I could salvage, they friggin’ bulldozed and put it in trailers,” Purdo said. “And I came back, and I had 10 friggin’ workers raking through my stuff and putting stuff out on the road. They were just taking it all away.”

“Irma screwed us, and Sun Communities looted us,” Purdo said.

John McLaren, president and chief operating officer of Sun Communities, said he could not comment on Purdo’s situation, but he said the mile marker 87.5 subdivisions were so devastated that the area needed to be cleared of debris immediately before restoration work could safely begin.

“We’re doing everything we can to clean up, but also to create safe passage within the community,” McLaren said.

But Purdo pointed to a ragged, hanging piece of metal awning flapping semi-attached to her trailer.

“They left it like that. It’s not safe whatsoever,” Quinn said.

Many Monroe County residents own trailers because mobile homes offer an affordable alternative to be able to live and work in the Keys. Purdo worries this won’t be the case when neighborhoods like Sea Breeze reopen with modern trailers that are built at higher elevations and meet stronger windstorm standards.

Higher costs

“They raised our rent to $899 as of Nov. 1,” she said. Park residents own their trailers but rent the lots. Purdo expects lot rents to go up when the park reopens.

“Then you’re going to sell us a trailer, and we’re going to have to pay that, mortgage, on top of that. So, what happens now is this is no longer affordable,” Purdo said.

In the meantime, Purdo and other Sea Breeze residents are getting by with the help of friends and family. On Wednesday, she was inside a neighbor’s destroyed trailer trying to see what could be salvaged. The neighbor, Heather Allen, is a professional photographer who, with her husband Brian, evacuated and hasn’t come back. Among the items Purdo was trying to save were photo albums containing Heather’s work and a diamond and sapphire wedding ring.

The latter, Purdo didn’t have much hope that it could be found in all the waterlogged mess, but that didn’t stop her friend Sheri Griffin from traveling south from Key Largo with a metal detector.

“Let’s go find that ring,” Griffin said, donning earphones and adjusting settings on the detector.

“We’re not going to find it, honey,” Purdo, said, noting most of the trailer is made of metal. “Not unless you got a ring detector on that thing.”

This is how Purdo has been spending much of her time post-Irma, helping her neighbors and receiving help in return. At night, she’s been spending the night either at friends’ and family’s homes, or at the Conch On Inn motel, which has taken in several displaced locals in the weeks since Irma struck.

“I got a few homes. I got the Conch On Inn motel. She’s my rock, she’s my angel,” Purdo said about owner Cindy Sawdy, who’s also been providing meals at no cost for her guests at the small five-room motel motel at 103 Caloosa St. “It’s like home base for us right now.”

“They have taken us in. They make sure we are fed. She makes dinner for us every night,” Purdo said about Cindy and her husband Mike Sawdy. “They’re fabulous people. I don’t know what I would have done without them.”

Mike Sawdy said he and Cindy feel a closeness and gratitude to the Keys, so opening their doors and kitchen to those most impacted by Irma wasn’t a tough choice — especially while the Keys has been closed to tourists.

“When we got home, we had power. Nobody else had power. We were super lucky. Our damages were very minor,” said Sawdy, who rode out Irma in Fort Lauderdale. “We’re part of the community, and we just love it down here. Everybody’s always been so nice to us. I’m glad to be part of it.”

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204