Big Pine Key continues to rebuild one year after Hurricane Irma
In the year that followed Hurricane Irma, the Keys continued to feel the direct and indirect effects of the Category 4 storm, retrace the government’s steps in the disaster, deal with a Keyswide housing crunch, make the tourism industry rebound and withstand some serious crimes.
Here are the top 25 stories of 2018 from the Florida Keys.
1. Irma recovery
1. One year after Hurricane Irma struck Sept. 10, 2017, some Keys residents continued to rebuild.
2. Housing crunch
In May, then-Gov. Rick Scott helped hand the Keys 1,300 permits to build new workforce housing, as people struggled to stay in Monroe County and rents soared amid the housing crunch. But some elected leaders found the offer to be a headache for government.
3. Key lime pie controversy
We all know Key lime pie was invented in the Keys, right? Well, not everyone agrees. A cookbook author rattled a Key West expert on the pie this year.
4. Military jet crash
A U. S. Navy F/A-18F Superhornet fighter jet crashed in the water near the Naval Air Station Key West in March, killing the two Naval aviators on board. The two crew members were ejected. A Navy spokesman this month said no crash report is available yet.
5. Stolen gold bar
Two out-of-towners stole a 17th century gold bar that had been found in a shipwreck off of Key West from a local museum. They had it melted down to be sold off but a small piece was recovered by police. A judge sent them both to prison, saying they destroyed a priceless artifact.
6. Big Pine Key
Big Pine Key, one of the hardest-hit areas by Irma — along with Marathon — remained filled with resilient residents who said they’re not going anywhere. In FEMA trailers and tents, Big Piners kept fighting to stay at home after the storm.
7. Tourist tragedy
The Keys made international headlines in March after four women from Spain vacationing in South Florida were killed after their rental car was hit from behind by a commercial box truck. The impact pushed their car into oncoming traffic on U.S. 1 and into the path of an RV, which totaled the car, killing everyone inside.
8. Brush fire
To add insult to injury after Irma, Big Pine residents were hit with a brush fire that burned for one week on part of the island. Some residents were forced to battle the blaze themselves. Only one home was ruined, but one resident called the experience an Irma flashback.
A report released in September, one year after Irma laid low much of the Keys, showed many people left Monroe County and never came back. The Keys lost 4 percent of its population in the aftermath of the devastating storm.
10. Hotel and restaurant recovery
A year after Irma, Keys’ hotels and restaurants showed strong signs of rebounding. But, many challenges remain, including how to attract more help in the face of increasing housing prices and rents.
11. Hospital hit
Marathon’s Fishermen’s Community Hospital took a knockout blow from Irma. With the roof peeled off, local leaders called for a new $40 million hospital and the county commission approved a new tax district to help fund Fishermen’s Community Hospital.
“Keys Cottages” began going up on Big Pine Key. The project for nine homes in the Avenues neighborhood is the work of the Florida Keys Community Land Trust, which a philanthropic couple started after Irma hit.
13. Murder-for-hire case
In 2014, a retired U.S. Coast Guard chief warrant officer, and former commander of Coast Guard Station Islamorada, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for arranging a murder-for-hire plot on a Marathon businessman. The FBI released unredacted transcripts in July that revealed a rival business owner was mentioned in conversations with the hired hit man as being the possible money man behind the scheme.
14. Duval Street shooting
The national firearms legal debate came to the Keys in May when the verdict of a Key West shooting case, in which a man opened fire on a Duval Street crowd, hitting three people he did not know, was reconsidered in the wake of an appeals court interpretation of Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law.
15. Scott’s defeat
While Broward hogged the spotlight in this year’s heated mid-term election season, the Keys briefly offered a distraction when it was revealed that Rick Scott, who dashed Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s re-election hopes, lost in the heavily Republican Monroe County by one vote.
16. Rob Stewart death
The scuba diving death of famed Toronto conservationist and filmmaker Rob Stewart off Islamorada in early 2017 once again brought international attention to the Keys. Court documents released this year raised serious questions over the motivations of the team who recovered Stewart’s body.
Hurricane Irma took away plenty, but there were some positive outcomes. The storm unveiled remnants of an 1887 Austrian ship wreck on the reef off Key Largo. A group of volunteer divers whose original mission was documenting ships involved in the African slave trade helped preserve the find in June.
18. Message in a bottle
The storm also turned up a message in a bottle in Key Largo that was thrown into the North Sea by Scottish elementary school students in the 1980s.
19. Fishing fleet
The Upper Keys’ famed charter fishing fleet was particularly hard hit by Irma. More than a year on, it remains unclear if the industry will ever fully recover.
20. Missing men
Two men sailed from a Lower Keys marina two years ago. Early the next morning, the boat was found, but the men remain missing to this day, and the family of one of them has not given up looking for their son and brother.
21. Key West mayor’s race
Key West voters elected a new mayor, the former two-time city commissioner Teri Johnston, who beat former one-term city commissioner Margaret Romero in the Nov. 6 runoff by winning 66 percent of the vote. Equality Florida made note of Johnston being an openly lesbian politician who won office but locals shrugged it off, citing Key West’s decades-long practice of acceptance of LGBTQ people. Mayor Craig Cates, first elected in 2009, was term-limited. City leaders named him Mayor Emeritus, a rare honor in Key West.
22. Call from God
A Key West candidate took a phone call from God during a political forum. A perennial non-favorite, Sloan Bashinsky said God tells him to run for office.
23. Murder mystery
The year ended on a grisly note when the naked body of a woman was found in the woods near the Vaca Cut Bridge in Marathon the day before Thanksgiving. While a suspect was found almost immediately, it would be another week until the police were able to identify the victim using her fingerprints.
For years, the resurgence of the American saltwater crocodile was hailed by wildlife officials and conservationists, and locals were told to deal with their toothy neighbors lurking in Keys canals. Fast forward a few years and several pets that became meals for the crocs, state officials now want to make life uncomfortable for the reptiles in an effort to make them move away from people.