On Tuesday, Sept. 5, frustrated with the lack of local news coverage of then-approaching Hurricane Irma, I figured, what the heck, I used to be a journalist and I love the possibilities of social media, so I could do it myself.
Facebook makes social media community-building fairly simple. Create a page. Source content. Post it. Talk with those who follow and comment. Rinse. Repeat. Add husband, Ed Cunningham, to the “staff” along with the Cat 5s for photos, videos and the occasional personal touch. Realize this was going to be considerably more work than I’d bargained for. Sing a siren song for another retired journalist (Pretty please, John Teets). We started with a few friends following along. We called ourselves Key West Hurricane Irma.
Five days later, I’d clearly underestimated the hunger for news and information. Facebook shut us down early on because we’d grown so fast it thought we were a spam site. Our posts have reached a million people — in two weeks. Our videos have been watched more than a quarter-million times. My hosting company throttled my website because you visited so much they thought I’d been hacked. As Irma roared across Key West to blow away the middle Keys on Sunday, Sept. 10, tens of thousands of you from around the world dropped into our home and stayed close by.
For that’s what Key West Hurricane Irma became. Our home. Where we shared our sense of global community, our fears, our joys and occasionally — though very occasionally — our worst selves. Late into every night, often well past midnight and back at it before dawn, John and I wrestled and posted the news content we gathered independently, shared our insights and managed the comments and messages.
John’s was the voice you heard as you read our responses. He cared deeply about each of you; his responses to you were heartfelt and personal. We made a good pair, these two retired Illinois journalists who call Key West home. I’ll not know exactly how to manage without his text messages back and forth at all hours.
Do you know? He and I never once, not once, actually talked to each other. We are happy word people; we write. Not talk. (Inside jokes: Squirrel, John. MGM lion. And that glorious line that still makes me laugh: “… I’ll make a couple more sweeps to see if a trolling trout has leapt to the hook of the drag queen.…”)
John and I started early on with four simple house rules:
- We’d post only news and information from credible sources. That meant scouring the web and using our own handful of local sources with direct, first-hand knowledge. No rumors, though we were honest when we’d say “we don’t know.” And, there were good sources. My on-island husband was one. Our neighbor across the street with his old-tech land line who first told us just after noon on Sunday that Key West had escaped the worst. Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers and Key West City Commissioner Sam Kaufman, two extraordinarily social media-savvy people. Two Key West locals, Mike Freas and Jamie Mattingly, whose sources in the community extended our reach, especially in the days right after the storm.
- We’d allow open comments and messages, but we’d whack the moles and swat the trolls.You wanted to whine, complain, throw political sandbags, advertise? There were plenty of other Facebook pages for that. And, we’d show you the door. Not in our house, please.
- We’d make it personal. Over the two-plus weeks you got to know our families and we yours. John and I joked via text one late night about “digital Stockholm Syndrome.” We were all of us sharing our lives under incredibly challenging circumstances. And, we did it with grace. Perhaps we can take a bit of that grace forward with us.
- We’d quit. We weren’t sure when “quit” would happen. We were confident we’d know. Today we knew. It’s time to wish our houseguests farewell and Godspeed.
And, with that, let’s do one more short round of what we know, what we don’t know and what we think we know.
Hurricane basics: Hurricane Irma smacked into Key West as a Category 4 hurricane and made landfall in the middle Keys with the most powerful storm in decades. Mother Nature saved Key West. The island was on the southwesterly backside of the storm, where winds were less damaging that those that crashed into Cudjoe and Big Coppitt. The hurricane crossed Key West at low tide, creating a storm surge less than Hurricane Wilma’s, which drowned the island in 2005. Flooding, while extensive, was “manageable.” Fourteen people died in or during the storm; some of natural causes. Our sister islands at the upper end of the Keys fared reasonably well. The middle Keys in many areas were destroyed.
Building codes: The South Florida coastal building codes, which many considered draconian, excessively costly and downright unfair, today are proof that structures built to or renovated to those standards are virtually impervious to a Cat 4 hurricane and, if elevated appropriately, can withstand the subsequent storm surge. Structural damage throughout the Keys was almost exclusively to buildings and trailers not meeting the new standards. (And, as an aside: This should — finally — prove to the windstorm insurers that wind insurance in the Keys is excessively costly and based on inappropriate data.)
Recovery: Key West is rapidly recovering thanks to superhuman efforts by Keys Energy, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority and countless emergency responders and military personnel. Water and electric were restored almost everywhere in the Keys within two weeks. There will be, I am sure, political trolls casting about to lay claim to the best efforts and run from the worst. But, there’s nothing slapdash about the ways FEMA, the state, Monroe County Emergency Management, other locals and the assorted federal agencies got it together and got it done. There’s a lot of justifiable pride to be shared.
There’s massive damage. Don’t kid yourself — based on the good news here and there — that everything is just great in the Keys. It’s not and there will be months, even years, of recovery up and down the island chain. Many lost everything and the euphoria of Key West’s escape drowns out the destruction elsewhere. Had Key West suffered the damage of Big Coppitt, our stories and headlines would sound far different. Our landscaping will regrow, but today Key West is a naked, brown and prickly place with piles of debris towering over neighborhoods. And, there’s even less parking. While the main streets are clear, the side streets are not.
We need our tourists to come back and we really aren’t delighted that the governor and now the city are saying “open by Oct. 1.” I get the rock-and-hard-place decision. Without tourists, we have no economy. With them descending on us in a week? Egads, folks, come on down, but it’s not going to be exactly what you always dreamed. So be prepared that the postcards will be a bit tatty. We completely understand that without tourists, many of our island locals don’t eat, pay the rent or raise the kids. We also get annoyed when tourists are all bummed out because their timeshare might not be ready today. It’s hard to dredge up much sympathy when one can’t go back to work. It’s a conundrum. It will pass. But it’s tough to balance our need for cash and the reality of our damaged island home.
My Cat 5s are resilient and my park ranger husband is loving his days rebuilding fences, dragging brush, trimming trees and running chainsaws. Today, he played mechanical apprentice to rebuild an engine. Oil, grease, grime, sweat. That’s what little boys are made of. All five of our cats are happily out and about these days. Indoor cats one and all, they are grateful for the air conditioning and the back porch where they can torture anoles and chase the palmetto bugs. (Roaches, really, but that sounds so disgusting.)
Ed and I head for Atlanta late next week to babysit our grandson for a week. My clients’ patience is wearing thin. They need updates to their websites, new content, social media. They’ve got businesses to run; I need to get back to work — and billable hours. It doesn’t take long for real life and real bills to interrupt a crisis, does it?
I’m going home Sunday. I’ve been with my mother in Virginia since Aug. 28. It was supposed to be a few days; we’re headed into a month. She’s moving into an assisted-living apartment (happily, thank heaven); being together has been good for both of us. We pack and put color-coded stickers on things, give away furniture but not the memories, argue occasionally, eat supper in front of the television. My youngest brother (I am the eldest of five) takes over on Sunday for the final details. Like my “digital family,” it’s good to share.
And now I must do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Say goodbye to you and text John about this one last time. What a strangely wonderful family we created, didn’t we? Proof in today’s chaotic, politically explosive world that most of us are good people, that the angry voices that so shrilly down us out are but whispers in the face of our compassion for each other. You’ve been ready to share, to help, to make a connection that matters. You were there for me when I was terrified I would lose my husband, my home, and yes, my Cat 5s. I am grateful.
See you on the flipside. Godspeed, my friends.
Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband, Ed, live in Key West with their five cats.