Monday,  January 24, 2022  1:14 am

Florida Keys: "It's as if Irma never came"

Florida Keys: "It's as if Irma never came"
Christine Hogg

Christine Hogg is the Associate Digital Editor at PAX Global Media. Prior to joining PAX, she obtained her Honours BA in Journalism from the University of Toronto. Upon graduating, she went on to write for several travel publications while travelling the world. Her longest trip was a three-week stint in Europe, and the shortest was a 16-hour adventure in Iceland. Get in touch:

After Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys, one property owner, Jim Bernardin of the Pines and Palms Resort in Islamorada, was so anxious to get back up and running, that he purchased his own backhoe to clean up so that his staff could get back to work.

“We are nothing without the people in the Florida Keys,” said Ashley Serrate, media relations manager, Florida Keys and Key West. “This story kind of gives you a sense of the resiliency and the motivation behind everyone wanting to recover here.”

Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm. In some areas of the Keys, signs of Irma’s impact and the local recovery efforts can still be seen. The areas least affected by Irma were Key Largo and Key West, and all facilities, with the exception of the Parrot Key Hotel, are back up and running. In Islamorada and Marathon, many businesses are back and others are working hard to return to operations. The regions of Big Pine and the Lower Keys continue their recovery efforts. Some of the closed hotels are set to re-open in the first quarter of 2018, but a few will need more time.

ISP06.jpg Aerial shot of the Florida keys, post-Irma

Damage to the Keys

“We don’t want to sugarcoat it, because that wouldn’t be fair to the residents, or the people that live there,” Serrate said. “It was a very significant storm and in certain places, you will still see debris, because as an island, you have to put the debris somewhere before you can transport it away. In Marathon and in Big Pine, you’ll see big piles of debris in staging areas, not on the highway, but as you drive south, the biggest change you’ll notice is that it’s a little less green; you can see the ocean in certain places you didn’t used to before, because there used to be trees blocking it.”

The Florida Keys are organized into five districts. Driving south from Miami, the first stop is Key Largo, which according to Serrate, is known as the dive capital of the United States. The Keys are known for their fresh seafood, and it’s not uncommon to find “boat-to-table” concept dining in restaurants throughout the region. Continuing southbound, Islamorada is the next stop for what is quickly becoming a hub for sport-fishing enthusiasts. Marathon is next, and features many family-friendly centred properties and attractions like the dolphin research centre and turtle hospital.

ISP03.jpg The drive along the famed Florida Keys Overseas Highway, post-Irma

“We’re bordered by water on both sides, and anything on the Atlantic Ocean received pretty significant storm damage,” Serrate said. “A lot of the properties in Islamorada and Marathon sustained significant storm surge, but most properties are well on their way to recovery, and we just got some great news that one of our signature properties, Amara Cay, opens on Dec. 15. There are many great stories coming out of the Keys, especially about the resiliency of its people.”

Still further south is the Big Pine Key region, which is where the brunt of Hurricane Irma was felt the most. “There was a common misconception that we were wiped off the map, but as you can see,” Serrate said, “we’re still here, and we’re not gone.”

_MG_1742.jpg Ashley Serrate, media relations manager, Florida Keys and Key West, and Jerry Grymek, account manager, LMA Communications.

After every storm comes a rainbow

According to Serrate, part of the reason that officials decided to re-open part of the destination to visitors on Oct. 1, instead of Oct. 22, was primarily because of the spirit of the Florida Keys people. “Fifty-two per cent of the work force in the Keys is employed by the tourism industry, and that’s a big number,” Serrate said. “It’s a big number for any destination, but it’s a big number for us. To be able to get people back into that sense of normalcy was important to help continue the recovery process.”

Speaking from a video conference, Stacey Mitchell, director of marketing, Florida Keys and Key West, expressed her gratitude towards the locals who have shouldered together to expedite recovery, and for the visitors who keep coming back.

“The Florida Keys and Key West tourism industry is so thankful that so much of our island destination is open and welcoming visitors after Hurricane Irma,” said Stacey Mitchell, director of marketing, Florida Keys and Florida Key West. “Our infrastructure is operating normally, including the famed Florida Keys Overseas Highway. We understand that travellers have choices for their vacation destination, and we ask that the Florida Keys remain at the top of those lists. We honestly believe that visitors will have a satisfying vacation experience.”

ISP02.jpg The reefs of the Florida Keys were damaged, but this post-Irma shot shows that the sponges are still healthy and intact, and diving remains a popular activity

Big Pine Key is recovering faster than expected. “Most of what’s in Big Pine and the Upper Keys is residential so from a tourism standpoint there are some properties that have reopened like Parmer’s resort, which is a great, family-owned property which is staging their room openings, opening slowly but surely. The wildlife refuges are open and some of the parks are open, but it’s obviously going to take a little bit longer because it [Big Pine] received the brunt of the impact. Everyday it gets better, and every day is a new day.”

Serrate explained that after taking a drive through the Keys after the storm, she noticed many colourful, hand-painted signs in front of shops stating that they were open for business, and one in particular caught her eye. “It said: after every storm comes a rainbow. We are the rainbow, and that stuck with me, because that’s what the people in the Keys believe. We prepare for stuff like this, because that’s the price of living in paradise; hurricanes are unwelcome and we don’t like them, but this is the price we pay for where we live, and so the Florida Keys is definitely ready for its rainbow.”