Wind and water aren’t the only problems hurricanes can bring. Discover the story of a fishing community that is refusing to quit.

Keys Strong

Wind and water aren’t the only problems hurricanes can bring.

September 10, Hurricane Irma made landfall on U.S. soil in the Florida Keys, after wreaking havoc throughout the Caribbean, the southern Bahamas, and Cuba.

When Irma hit Cudjoe Key in the lower Keys, it arrived as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 115 knots. Up and down the chain of islands, damage was the worst on the ocean (south) side of the only highway connecting the Keys, US 1.

Gallery: Irma in the Keys

Click through the gallery below to see more of Irma's impact on the Keys

As I write this from my home in Islamorada, it’s been a month since the storm and the remarkable efforts to clean up and recover from the damage continue—with no end in sight. Keys residents tend to be a resilient bunch; we typically take hurricanes in stride, or as much as one can take such a thing in stride.

Most of you have probably seen the images coming out of the Keys, photos and videos of huge trash piles, wrecked mobile homes, sunk boats, and flooded appliances. We had just seen similar imagery coming from Texas, as our neighbors in the Lone Star state went through a similar ordeal with Harvey only a few weeks earlier.

Many people lost their homes, their cars, their boats, and irreplaceable personal belongings. Such is the nature of natural disaster. But many have suffered an ongoing and more insidious kind of loss in the days and weeks after the storms ended: economic loss.

Most of the oceanside Keys marinas where charter boats dock suffered heavy damage, forcing boats to seek dockage elsewhere while repairs were undertaken. That might not sound catastrophic at first, until you realize that Keys marinas tend to be small and fully occupied. So when these boats get displaced, there really isn’t anywhere else to go.

Much of the charter fleet is under water, but spirits remain high. Greg Poland

Much of the charter fleet is under water, but spirits remain high. Greg Poland

Much of that stems from the fact that geographically, the Keys are a small land mass, surrounded by shallow water in most places. Suitable building sites for deepwater marinas capable of accommodating larger, inboard boats aren’t easy to find, so dock space tends to be limited.

As Irma approached, these boats had to leave the marinas in most cases and seek shelter where they could find it. Some captains drove their boats far into tidal creeks and tied them off to the mangrove bushes on either side. This time-honored hurricane defense strategy has proven quite effective in the past and did so again with Irma.

Others hauled their boats and secured them on the hard at local boatyards with stands and chains. And still others tied their boats off in the middle of residential canals with multiple lines secured to dock cleats, trees, or whatever was available. Most boats made it through, but not all. One notable exception was Capt. Jim Sharpe of Summerland Key, a veteran Keys skipper and renowned mahi-mahi expert, who has weathered many a storm in his years in the Keys.

Sharpe had his 43-foot Torres charter boat, Sea Boots, tied off in the canal behind his home office, but the 1½-inch line securing the bow parted in the height of the storm, causing the boat’s stern to rise onto the dock in the flood tide, and sinking the bow in the canal. Many other boat owners shared a similar fate, as thorough preparation simply fell victim to bad luck and the unpredictability of wind and tide.

Still other charter skippers found themselves with no place to dock their boats, as some marinas sent them letters saying they could not return for up to a full year as repairs moved forward. With a paucity of commercial slips available to move to, many of these captains found themselves berthing their boats behind the houses of friends in residential neighborhoods temporarily. A good short-term solution for storage, but not viable long term since chartering from residential areas is almost always illegal.

Then there’s the general economic malaise that hurricanes inflict on tourism-based business of all sorts. For several weeks after Irma, non-residents weren’t allowed into the Keys at all. When authorities finally opened the road to everyone, they did so to allow workers to come back and resume their jobs.

Businesses, including charter boats, were shut down for weeks, and a few remain shut down a month later. Imagine your own plight if you were thrust into a situation in which your income stopped completely for weeks, maybe months? Most of us would be strapped hard in short order should we be forced to coast with no money coming in.

Expenses continue, of course, and bills keep coming. FEMA will undoubtedly offer some assistance, but as the offshore charter fleet struggles to get back on its feet, you can help. The best way is to come to the Keys, book a fishing trip, stay in a hotel room, and eat at our great restaurants. The Keys may be battered, but they are also open for business and a little economic stimulation goes a long way.

Recovering from Irma: Not for the faint of heart.

Recovering from Irma: Not for the faint of heart.

The good news is that offshore fishing has been red hot since Irma passed through. Capt. Steve Leopold of the Islamorada-based charter boat Yabba Dabba Do summed things up perfectly. “Most of the boats and marinas are up and running in Islamorada but some resorts are not open yet,” he says. “The best place to be in the Keys is out on the water. Not many boats and lots of fish.”

The charter fleet awaits your arrival and is eager to get back to work; as I mentioned earlier, they are a resilient lot. Hand-painted plywood signs along US 1 sport slogans like “Keys Strong,” and “You Can’t Drown a Conch!”

Amidst all of the destruction and chaos, the Keys’ sense of humor and desire to go fishing remain intact. And that’s what makes this place so special.

Discover more devastating, and beautiful, photography at www.gregpolandphotography.com

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