Hurricane Irma: 9-14-17: Cutting down trees, piling up brush, restoring Fort Zach

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park ranger Ed Cunningham went back to work today cutting brush, removing trees, piling debris and trying awfully hard to handle his grief over the devastation of the park. He told me tonight that “there are years of work to do” before we get back the Fort Zach we love.

Fort Zach took the brunt of Hurricane Irma as the westerly winds from the back side tore through that tidy little spit at the end of Key West. At least a third of the Australian pines are down and gone. Most of the other trees and vegetation is destroyed. And the beach? There’s sand, but not the way we remember it. Ed says the sand is up into the remaining trees, the picnic tables are buried and onlyt the tops of the grills are showing above the sand. That’s feet of sand. Not a few inches. There was a catch in his voice again this evening. Tomorrow, he and his fellow park rangers go back at 8 a.m., and they’ll work until just before the sunset curfew. For days. Weeks. Years.

“You know,” he said as he called from the cell tower behind new City Hall, hurrying because it was almost curfew, “you know how back in Rockford at the end of the winter there would be those mountains of snow piles that dwarfed cars and filled parking lots? Well, that’s exactly what the streets of Key West are like today — except instead of dirty white snow, it’s dead green.”

“You think parking was a problem before the hurricane,” he joked. “Well, it’s worse now. Every square inch of available parking along the streets is filled with mountains of vegetation and debris. Some streets are barely one way. If people came back now, they’d have no place to park.”

The city’s debris removal contractor is at work, but the task of removing everything that was green last week is monumental.

My park ranger sounds, despite it all, happy. Forester and tree hugger that he is, Eagle Scout that he was, Ed thrives on things like chain saws, hammers and heavy equipment. He grins when he comes home from work after getting to use the Fort Zach tractor and guiding tours of the fort. He said it was drizzling tonight. No sunset to speak of.

We’re minus the Facebook trolls!

A week ago we were screwing in the shutters, gassing up the car and entertaining ourselves with Hurricane Irma Comes To Key West Cat 5 stories (hurricanes, not my Cat 5s).

Today, we’re flat worn out. And, by we, I mean we’uns off-island watching from our semi-comfortable evacuation retreats, with air conditioning, running water, a toilet that flushes on command, a pizza place on speed dial and ice cubes for adult beverages. So, since we have nothing else to do, we ratchet up our indignation and yell at whomever happens to be closest. (I just grumped at my mother; I know the feeling.)

Except not on our Key West Hurricane Irma Facebook Page. Here we’ve shown the best side of humans under stress. Not so in my News Feed or on some of the other Facebook pages I follow. Here has been a refuge; I chalk that up to you. Those who’ve followed it since we made our first post at 8:12 a.m., Sept. 5, know this: Over the past nine days, we have reached three-quarters of a million people with our posts, there are 12,000 people following the page and there’ve been more than 128,000 video views.

We are the most civilized collection of online family. When this mess is over, you can tell yourself you did good. Thanks for letting me be part of that.

What we know, don’t know, and think we know

Keys Energy estimates maybe by the end of the week Key West will have power. And, that, my friends, is the best news of the day. I’m not dragging out the hairdryer in celebration just yet, but you gotta give credit to those guys climbing poles and chasing wires. Dangerous, hot, nasty work.

There are no hordes of looters at your door. I mean, really, folks? Use some common sense and stop feeding on headline hysteria. OK, not on our page, but it’s out there. The sheriff and the city police report, like maybe, four reports from the whole county. Give our island people some credit. They’re not breaking into your homes in roving packs. Sure, it could happen. That’s why law enforcement is roaming around, too.

Running water. Getting there, but slow going. Each day on-island folks get a couple hours mid-day and a couple in the evening. So they get a shower. A pox on the people who are washing cars and cleaning outdoor spaces. Those greedy ones are making it tough for everyone else.

KeysRecovery.org is the new Monroe County Emergency Management website that will provide the latest information on the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. I hope. The site’s content remains pretty thin, but I’m hoping they are committed to keeping it up to date. For now, she says immodestly, we’ve got more updated news on the Facebook Page.

Find someone. Everyone has been begging for an efficient “wellness check” system. I dug around the new website this afternoon and found this. Send an email with details to info@keysrecovery.org and they’ll get it to the right place.

Old Publix is open with shortened hours. Good news for those who didn’t plan for a couple weeks of canned goods. Do not, however, expect to find delicacies for a cocktail party and, fresh stuff will be hard to come by until supply lines can support those big trucks.

Communications getting better. Yeah, you’re getting calls. Finally. I got a text from a friend this evening saying she actually had data service — and thus internet. Ah, the simple pleasures of the digital world.

And, no, we still don’t know when we can go home. We can’t go home until there is stable electric, water, sewer, food deliveries and medical services. Each hour we get closer thanks to those nameless, sweaty, tired, frustrated men and women lifting, tying, cutting, checking, building and fixing.

It sucks to read posts or listen to calls from on-island folks who have taken down shutters, or who are sharing cocktails and cooking up the frozen stuff with friends. Seems unfair they can work on their houses and we can’t. I know that’s making a lot of us irritable. We don’t want to admit that we harbor a secret thought or two that they’re being rewarded for not evacuating and we’re being punished for getting the heck off the rock.

That’s the way it is with decisions. (Cliche alert) Sometimes you catch the ring and sometimes you fall off the horse.

From way out here, in those NOAA satellite pictures, our homes look just like they did a week ago. From the ground, it’s a much different story. We escaped the predictions. We did not escape the damage.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband, Ed, live in The Meadows of Key West with their Cat 5s.

 

 

 

Hurricane Irma: Sept. 13-17: Key West clean-up. Tempers fray. Frustrations increase. Time for Cat 5 pictures

Internet trolls are like Key West iguanas. Not even Hurricane Irma kills ’em. 

You knew it was going to happen. After the adrenaline surge of that pounding storm; after we confirmed Key West was (sorta) OK; after we wore out our welcome with our evacuation partners; after all that we’re just fed up. Irritable. Frustrated. Belligerent and ready to pick a fight.

Michael, or Mickey, or Mr. Mike, is our baby. He just turned one in August. We bottle fed him from four days old.

Where better to pick that fight than on the interwebbies? I noticed the belligerence escalating early Wednesday morning as those who evacuated started getting testy over not being allowed to come home. Some are copying-and-pasting a letter to Gov. Rick Scott demanding that he force Key West and Monroe County officials to let them back in. A few are shouting in capital letters along the lines of how “no one will ever evacuate again” and “off with their heads.”

Others are taking to broadsiding the national media — with some significant justification I agree — for grossly inaccurate, clickbait headlines and reporting that clearly don’t have a clue where Key West is. I admit to posting this comment this morning on my personal Facebook Page: “I just read a romanticized purple prose piece from the NYTimes that pretty much made me gag my cheerios. And I love and respect the NYT, but gheesh….”

And then there are the bottom feeders prepped and ready to scam you with clever ways to part you and your money. (Unsolicited advice: Call your insurance agent. Call FEMA. Send money only to the charities you know personally. Do not under any circumstances connect yourself with websites and emails that promise to do it for you no matter how caring they sound.)

Under the bed in their personal kingdom. The favorite place for Molly and Sarah. We call them the “old girls.”

In short, nothing unexpected. John Teets and I have spent a good chunk of Wednesday playing whack-a-mole on our Facebook Page with trolls and bottom feeders — and trying to gently work with real folks stunned at the magnitude of what Irma did to their Key West lives. We’ve both been in the news business for decades, so we know this is normal; we know it’s likely to get worse and we know it will pass. A week or two down the calendar and frustration, anger and irritability over the inability to control our lives will become determination to get things done and get back to normal.

Just not today. 

With that said, let’s do a quick roundup of what we know, what we don’t and what we think we know.

Starting with the big one: Today was the day cell service returned to Key West. OK, so it’s not great. But it’s there. I actually got a couple emails, photos and text messages from my husband and the Cat 5s. He was sitting in the parking lot behind new City Hall where the city has set up a temporary cell phone tower. Pass the word. There are still a couple of parking places left.

Know, don’t know, think we know. All mixed together

Livvy — short for Olivia, the street on which we live — is one huge cat. She’s one of “the twins.”

The “what we know” updates demonstrate the frustrating challenges the first responders and emergency crews are facing — from an unauthorized landing of a well-intentioned, but wholly dangerous supply helicopter landing at Sears Town to a fire on Stock Island and challenges with electric repairs.

Electric service has increased to 10 percent in Key West and the Lower Keys and there were problems with work in Marathon that created delays. While progress is expected on Thursday, let’s do a reality check: Turning on your lights, much less your air conditioner and pool pump, is days away. I’d say weeks, but I’ve watched these specialists who do storm duty work miracles.

Water: FKAA is gaining on the leaks along the system. While the main line appears to be holding, all those uprooted trees have damaged feeder lines, creating what must feel like endless repairs. Like whack-a-mole for water as repair crews attempt to locate and fix leaks on private property and feeder lines.

No fuel, food, water and ice: For all us clamouring to come home, know this. There are significant shortages of food, fuel, water and ice for the emergency crews and their equipment. I get it. I want to go home, too, but let’s get a grip, my friends. That stuff belongs to the men and women who are going to save our little piece of paradise. There’s not enough for us and them, too. More fuel is on the way, as are other supplies. But again, not for us. For them.

Jersey is Livvy’s twin and litter mate. The only way we tell them apart is with colored collars — and Jersey has rosebud lips.

No. You’re not coming home. No you’re not going to get to take your vacation next week. No determination has been made when locals can come back to Key West. The best estimates remain seven-to-10 days; middle- to end-of-next week. There are too many people on the island right now for the available supplies (and, yes, my husband is one of them.) I wish to heaven I knew a date so I could plan a homecoming. But, as my beloved grandmother, Pansy Grist, used to say: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Eight deaths in Monroe County. Includes natural causes and hurricane related. Two of those eight deaths in Key West. Ten injuries in Key West. Thirty in remainder of county.

Finally, contact with my husband, Ed. He filled me in on his ‘cane-stay-cation and shared a bit of what life’s like on the island. He also shared his grief over the destruction at Fort Zachary Taylor, where he works as a park ranger. You also can check out those details on the Facebook Page.

Odds and Ends

Thought you might enjoy reading a column posted today on Huffington Post and written by a Key West resident. One of the many folks following our Facebook Page shared it with me. Called a “Love Letter to Key West,” it is written by  Lara Lillibridge and is a poignant and powerful reminder of why we each have our own love affairs with this island. Here’s a short bio, so you don’t have to go clicking around for it. “Lara Lillibridge is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. In 2016 she won Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest, and also The American Literary Review’s Contest in Nonfiction. … Lara’s memoir will debut in Fall of 2017 with SkyHorse Publishing. She is currently a co-editor for an anthology of women’s voices entitled, Memoirs of the Feminine Divine: Voices of Power and Invisibility.”

Oh, and the Cat 5s: All are OK. A bit traumatized but recovering. The first pictures Ed sent me today were at my request: The Cat 5s. So for those who haven’t met them, here they are. Ed says it’s so hot they just want to lie around in cool places like under the bed and on the back porch. Not the best pictures, but they’re our babies, so we think they’re beautiful. I know. I know. Crazy cat people.

And, with that, my friends, John and I call it a good day’s work. Be kind to yourself and to others. We have a swamp of unpleasant tasks ahead. Best we tackle them together. As my dad reminded his five kids regularly when we’d complain of some hardship or pain: This, too, shall pass.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband, Ed, who is a Fort Zach park ranger, live in The Meadows of Key West with their Cat 5s.

 

 

Hurricane Irma: Top 10 things to tell on-island people in Key West on your next call

The folks who are on-island in Key West following Hurricane Irma have limited access to information. We out here in the land of waiting-and-watching actually know more than our friends and families in Key West. So, as cell service is restored, copy/paste the text and/or text the link to this post with them. That way they’ll have the 10 most important pieces of information they need.

NOTE: Information current as of 4 p.m, Wednesday, Sept. 13.

  1. Electric: Keys Energy Services reports that about seven percent of Key West has service. May have full service 7-10 days. Service is primarily limited to first responders, emergency services. Monroe County Assisted Living Facility, whose generator had failed, now has power. Trying to get power to grocery stores so there’s a food and ice supply.
  2. Water: Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority making progress. In Key West water is turned on from 10 a.m. to noon and from 5 to 7 p.m. Key West and Stock Island will have water from stored supplies and the reverse osmosis plant. Water restrictions are in place. Water should only be used for sanitation purposes and not for washing cars, boats and houses for now. There is still a precautionary boil water notice in effect for all of the Keys.
  3. Cell and internet: The City of Key West has a temporary cell tower behind new City Hall. Go to the parking lot and connect. Other service is sketchy, but AT&T and others are working on it. As of Tuesday, “new” Publix had some sort of wifi still working. Might try it, too, but haven’t heard any recent confirmation.
  4. Food and gasoline: Some coming in, but limited to emergency services, etc. Publix and Winn DIxie say they are working to restore service. Ditto the gas station peeps. But don’t count on anything soon.
  5. When will you come home: Maybe mid- to late-next week. Airport is open for emergency services. No commercial flights. Home and business owners are being allowed back into areas down to MM 73 or so. Bridges and roads have been inspected and repaired. They are OK all the way down the Keys. No one allowed into Key West. There’s a sunrise to sunset curfew in place.
  6. Where to get emergency water and food: Six distribution centers for food and water: Coral Shores High School, Marathon High School, National Key Deer Refuge office on the Overseas Highway in Big Pine Key. Sugarloaf School, Sears Town Plaza in New Town Key West and the 4th Street parking lot near the soccer field in Bahama Village in Old Town Key West.
  7. Medical services: Lower Keys Hospital and Mariner’s Hospital are open with minimal services being offered. Disaster Medical Assistance Teams have arrived and will be setting up medical clinics today in Key West, the Florida Keys Community College and the City of Marathon Park.
  8. There is no 911 service as of noon Wednesday. Working to restore asap.
  9. Rumors of mass casualties are untrue: As of Wednesday morning, there were eight deaths in Monroe County. Includes natural causes and hurricane related. Two of those eight deaths in Key West. Ten injuries in Key West. Thirty in remainder of county.
  10. Check with local bars and businesses: There are some bars open; ditto a few businesses. They may have landlines. Some are also making whatever water and supplies they have available. The list changes constantly, so you might have to walk about.

 

And, of course, tell them you love them and will be home as soon as you can.

 

Hurricane Irma: 9-13-17: The Cat 5s and their dad report from Key West

Key West Artist Richard Matson. Photo taken in early 2017 before Hurricane Irma.

Fort Zach park ranger Ed Cunningham. Photo taken in early 2017 before Hurricane Irma.

Nothing like imagining Ed Cunningham and Richard Matson wandering around Key West looking for ice so they can make a vodka martini. But that’s the headline from “my boys” as they camp-a-cane in The Meadows today.

Although I knew he was OK because there’d been several “sightings” earlier in the week, today is the first chance Ed and I could share the post-Hurricane Irma details.

Ed is a forester by training, a utility forestry specialist by trade, a storm project manager and now a park ranger at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Nothing makes him happier than hugging trees — and collecting cats. Everyone thinks the cats are mine. Not so. Just Molly is mine. Sarah, Jersey, Livvy and Michael all prefer climbing over Ed and he’s pretty partial to them.

He said to tell you that he’s got photos and videos during and after the storm and will post them as soon as he gets a decent internet connection. I told him y’all really only cared about seeing a picture of him and the Cat 5s. He’ll try. In the meantime, here are the two Facebook Page posts from earlier this afternoon. Lots of good updates and info.

Ed Cunningham reports from Key West at 2:21 p.m., Wednesday, 9-13-17: If you’re just tuning in, my husband and our Cat 5s remained in Key West for the storm. Our house is in the 1300 block of Olivia. Here’s what he knows:

  • 1. The city has set up a temporary cell tower right behind new City Hall on White Street. Folks are beginning to gather there so they can make calls. Service reception was decent, though not great. Cell service elsewhere on island is spotty at best, and the city tower doesn’t extend very far.
    2. ICE. Oh, my they’d stand in line for ice. But they’re having a hard time getting info about where it’s available, and when they do, it’s usually gone.
    3. We out here know a LOT more about what’s happening than the on-island folks. They get info from 104.1 and that’s it. So, all the things we know about electric, water, clean-up, damage, etc., they really don’t know. For instance, WE know that the water from the taps that they’re getting a couple times a day is “non-potable.” They don’t. So, as Ed said, “oh, well, I’ve been drinking it for days and I’m not dead yet.”
    4. It’s miserably hot and humid. But they’re making the best of it. Ed was with our neighbor across the street when he called from city hall tower. I asked what they needed most: Ice and some vodka. So, they’re keeping a sense of humor about it all.
    5. The Cat 5s have returned to normal. Somewhat traumatized by the power of the storm (and they, too are hot. Lounging around like, well, cats), but they’re back to being regular cats.
    6. Ed has been cleaning up debris and trees from our property and around the neighborhood. He spent his entire career doing storm duty for major public electric companies and he’s a forester, so he knows what he’s doing.
    7. I asked if he thought I should file paperwork for FEMA and our various insurances. He said, “Sure. We’ve got a broken flower pot.”

 

  • 3:20 p.m., Wednesday, 9-13-17: Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Ed Cunningham, who is a park ranger at Fort Zach, was almost in tears as he told me about the damage at Fort Zach. He rode over today on his bike. About a third of the Australian pines are down and most of the rest of the trees are gone or stripped bare. The new guard shack/entrance is fine. He could not get down to the beach because downed trees have the road closed. There ARE folks working on clean up, but as Ed said, it’s going to be a long, hard haul.

And, with that, I’m going to put together a post called “Information Dick and Ed need to know.” It’ll wrap up everything WE know so they can read one post. As soon as I get it done, I’ll share the link.

Keep the faith, my friends.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband Ed live in The Meadows in Key West with their five cats.

Hurricane Irma: Sept. 12, 2017: Camping in Key West

Been thinking today that our collective sense of relief that Hurricane Irma in Key West “wasn’t as bad as it could have been” might be lulling us into a false euphoria over what we’re going to find when we finally get back home.

Countless times over the past three days I’ve typed “if you managed Wilma, you’re going to be just fine managing Irma.” Or, “We don’t know for sure, but the reports we’re getting from folks on-island say the town held together pretty well.” And, thousands of times, we all have posted the two letters “OK.”

An editor friend of mine whose newsrooms have covered more hurricanes, including Katrina, than most warned me in a comment on one of my more “euphoric” posts: “I’m glad everything is OK,” she wrote. “But get a grip, the worst is about to come straight in your face. It’s the recovery that will get you.”

Because we aren’t there — and because we’ve shared those amazing NOAA satellite images where we could count the trees in our yards and rejoice, as I did because the new solar panels were still on the roof and there WAS a roof — we’re seeing Key West as it was when we left. More than a bit like the Tourist Development Council’s postcards. Our heads know better, but we’re still seeing Key West with our hearts.

Just a caution, friends, here on our third day together. What our hearts are seeing, isn’t what our on-island friends and family are seeing.

I finally got through today on a landline to one of my friends who has biked the island over the past two days. She was blunt: It’s grim. There are no trees. No water. No electricity. No cell or wifi. And, no food except what we’ve stored. We’re making the best of it, but, it’s not like you remember. Sort of like primitive camping without knowing when you’ll ever get a shower or decent night’s sleep.

I guess I am tired tonight and I get kinda maudlin when my eyes are crossed and my brain doesn’t make my typing fingers work very well. So, let’s suck it up, shake it off and get down to what we know, what we don’t know and what we think we know. See? There I go with those cliches again.

What we know

  • Emergency services are arriving: C-130’s landing with supplies, including food and water, which are being distributed in Old Town and New Town.
  • Search and rescue teams are going throughout Keys and expect to complete their searches by Wednesday. There are no additional signs of casualties or fatalities, an almost miraculous thing. Searches do not include the private residences that are locked and shuttered.
  • Communications: By Wednesday we should begin to see some cell service (and internet if they’ve got a data plan) restored. AT&T is working to do so, and priority will go to emergency and first responders. I tried to call tonight; no luck; straight to voicemail. Be patient.
  • No fuel: Remember when you left the island how there was no gas going up the Keys and none in Key West? Well, that has not changed. If you’ve got gas in your car, that’s going to be it for a while, maybe a long while. Any supplies that make it to the island are going to emergency services, not for a ride up to Bahia Honda.
  • Streets cleared: The main streets in Key West are cleared and the city expects to have the side streets passable on Wednesday — and then comes the haul out.
  • The sewer plant is functioning but there’s still no water.
  • No electricty from Key West to the Seven Mile Bridge. Only about 30 percent have power from the Seven Mile up the Keys.There’s so much damage in Big Coppitt that it’s going to take a while for Keys Energy to clear debris and restore service. Keys Energy estimates 300 poles down from Sugarloaf to Big Pine Key.
  • Some Upper Keys residents and business owners were allowed back to inspect their homes today.

What we don’t know

  • Don’t plan on coming home anytime soon. Mayor Craig Cates said today it would be at least seven to 10 days before returning could even be consider. The airport is open, but not for commercial or small craft. Open only for emergency services. So, even if your Delta app is showing your flight is on time, you really need to show some common sense — the app is wrong. If I were estimating — and I am — when I can fly home from my mother’s in Virginia? I’d say the earliest would be a week from Friday, long about Sept. 22.
  • When basic services will be restored. See above. Crews are working but it’s a monster task to bring back the island — and it’s beyond worse farther up the Keys. We may have escaped the worst case scenarios, but not by much.
  • When “wellness checks” will begin: Eventually the emergency management folks will set up a formal system, likely before the end of the week. But, I have to be honest with you, finding out whether my husband is OK or not is not a priority for the first responders. He chose to stay. He knew he would be on his own. And, the real reason we haven’t heard from so many people is not because they’re hurt or missing. It’s because THEY CANNOT CALL US. Hopefully by week’s end, we’ll all have made connection.And, please do not be calling the U.S. Coast Guard to do it for you. That 800 number and red graphic that’s floating around is not for sending a Coast Guard officer to your mother’s door. Just wait. The city will organize something eventually.

What we think we know

Cell and internet communications should get better by the end of the week.

On-island folks are finally getting out and about — and they’re sharing information about landlines and hotspots. Some local businesses with landlines are offering long lines of people two minutes each to check in with families. I hear the lines are long.

Odds and Ends

My husband and the Cat 5s were re-united yesterday at our house. I haven’t talked to Ed, but a handful of sightings by friends is good enough for now. We may have a slightly different discussion at some point, but this is the guy who went off on a two-week ski trip with our son — and failed to check in once. When I asked why? Well, you knew where we were, you knew what we were doing and you knew we were safe. What else could we need to talk about? He had a point. I never worried again.

John Teets and I decided that although we’ve loved doing this Facebook Page, we kinda miss our olden days in print journalism when, once you put the various editions “to bed” and the press rolled, you could turn off the lights and head to the bar. The digital news world is (cliche coming) 24-7. I’m a tad long in the tooth to keep up that pace.

But, we’ll keep going for a while. As communications with the island improve, you’ll get your news first hand from friends and families. I suspect that over the next day or two, we’ll wind down to several scheduled posts and updates. It’s a great ride, though. I feel like we’ve created a splendid family — even if I did have to smack around a couple of political folks earlier today. Sent them off to the kids’ table for a time out.

And, with that, I’m done. In newsprint days, we just typed -30- at the end of a story. So, -30- it is.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband Ed, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in the Meadows neighborhood of Key West with the Cat 5s.

Hurricane Irma: Sept. 11, 2017: End of Day Two. Learning more

Tutu-Making Party! A couple weeks ago, Sheila Cullen, Cheryl Rollings and I threw ourselves a flamingo-pink tutu making party. We’re still hoping to wear them in the locals parade for Fantasy Fest, but, heck, in Key West a tutu is appropriate for any occasion.

Day Two of post-Hurricane Irma in Key West rolls to a close. So before I go cook supper for my mom — and maybe actually take a shower and read a couple chapters of mindless fiction on Kindle — let’s do the day’s update of what we know, what we don’t and what we think we know.

 

What we know

My Ed is OK: Knowing so many of you are frantic to make contact with on-island family and friends, I’m feeling a little guilty about getting the Facebook message at 3:05 p.m., today, that my husband, Ed is OK. Have absolutely no details other than “he’s OK.” I’m good with that. Although…. If he doesn’t soon get over to the house and borrow the neighbor’s landline, we might be having “words” — after I tell him I love him bunches and bunches. The fact that I got good news on Ed today means that y’all will, too. Bad things are happening on the island, but we can be pretty sure we’ll start making contact easier in the next day or so.

  • The damage was extensive: Make no mistake, folks, it’s not the paradise we left a few days ago. We are just now beginning to get photos and videos of the damage around town. It is extensive. If things were lushly green and palm fronds were waving on Saturday evening, by Sunday noon, they were gone. Trees are bare and hundreds are down. About 75 percent of the trees in Bayview Park are down. Some trees are on houses and some have closed streets within the city. There is structural damage in Key West, though so far no reports like the ones I’ve seen from Little Torch where entire houses are flattened. When we do get home, nothing will be the same. And, yes, because we won’t get home for a long time, and our homes are closed tight with no AC, expect some gawdawful mold, green swimming pools and all round nastiness — even if everything is structurally OK. There was flooding in all the usual parts of town. If you flooded in Wilma, you likely flooded this time, though perhaps not quite as high.
  • The folks who sheltered at Key West High School are fine and one reliable report I saw said everyone either was gone or was heading home.
  • Clean up has begun in earnest: The city and county have begun clean up as best they can with current resources. Streets are being cleared for access to neighborhoods and debris is being collected. It’s a long, slow, tedious and dangerous task. Reports I’ve read today would support my belief that one of the reasons I haven’t heard from my Ed is because he can’t walk from Simonton and Front streets where he sheltered to our home in the 1300 block of Olivia. Just a mile, but a planet away.
  • Communications: Same as yesterday. No cell service. No internet service. No wifi. Imagine that; a world without smartphones and text messages. They can’t contact us, folks. Not at all. Unless they happen to know someone with a landline or satellite phone. I suspect as they get out-and-about tomorrow, they’ll find more ways to connect. We hear that new Publix has wifi still working; heaven knows how, but if our on-island folks learn that — and if they can get to Publix — maybe we’ll hear sooner. The city and the Key West Fire Department are working with AT&T to restore internet service. Cell phone companies are sending technicians to repair cell phone towers. But that’s for first responders first. Surfing Facebook while streaming a video or football game ain’t gonna be on the priority list.
  • When can I come home? Not now. Definitely days; likely weeks. No one is coming down the Overseas Highway anytime soon. And, you’ll get stopped somewhere around Homestead if you try. There are places where parts of the highway are washed out. Nothing but emergency vehicles are coming down that road. The airport is closed and when it does re-open, trust, me there’s not going to be tourists getting a welcome-to-Key-West margarita in the Conch Flyer. I’m supposed to fly in on Sept. 18. I’m assuming that won’t happen. (Yikes, I need to ask mom if I can stay.) I know we don’t like to hear that. In fact, if I were a houseguest at friends, I’m pretty sure it would suck, especially for them. No one wants forever houseguests. But, if you’re thinking you can sneak back in the next few days or week? Better get over yourself.
  • There’s a curfew in place from sunrise to sunset.
  • Utilities and such: Right now, there’s no electricity, no water, no sewer and no communications. There’s no food coming in. Monroe County, Key West and the state are making headway, but it could be weeks before any kind of “normal” returns. The government folks warned us: If you choose to stay on the island, “you are on your own.” And, they mean it. They have to mean it. There is no priority higher than returning basic, life-saving services to the island and getting it going again — and that means all effort right now and for the foreseeable future is on a functioning emergency response. Whether the AC is working in my house or the pool guy comes to check the PH is irrelevant.
  • This today from City Commissioner Sam Kauffman: “FKAA have their employees returning to the Keys with crews in the Upper Keys, Marathon and the Lower Keys. Key West will have water tomorrow (Tuesday) from 10:00 am until noon only. There is a boil water order for the entire county. FKAA is working diligently to restore water. There is no water from Layton down to Key West. FKAA is working to isolate the areas where the lines are breached. Key West will have water during the two hour period Tuesday from temporary storage and from the Key West plant.
  • Also from Sam: “Good news is that it appears that there are no down power lines in Key West reported. 300 additional crew are arriving in the next day to assist to help get power back in the neighborhoods.”
  • An aside: My husband was a forester and project manager for public electric utilities for 40 years. He spent pretty much every summer and every winter on “storm duty.” I’d go for weeks without seeing him. For years, he was one of the guys that made the lights (and my hairdryer) come on again. He knows the challenges.
  • Supplies arriving: The military is bringing in a food and water delivery expected Monday evening with distribution coordinated by the City of Key West. The USS Abraham Lincoln is also underway with supplies. The Red Cross and Salvation Army will be bringing thousands of MRE’s and potable water to the Keys with serving first responders as a priority.

What we don’t know

  • We don’t know about your house or your family: Oh, goodness, how I wish I could answer each of you with specific news. Thousands of folks have posted to our Facebook Page asking about their home or a loved one. They’re frantic. I’ve fielded phone calls from around the world that break my heart, have translated information to Spanish for non-English speaking folks on the page and tried my best to calm the fears of those who are so desperately asking. The fact is, we don’t have any way of knowing or getting that information — yet. Eventually, the emergency rescue folks and organizations will set up a system for “wellness checks.” I hope it’s soon, but, honestly, it could be a while.
  • Timing:  We have no idea when things — fill in the blank with the “thing” you want — will happen. Patience is not something I have in any great measure, so this makes me nuts. I’m like the rest of you: I just want to know when so I can make plans. Ain’t fun to sit and wait helplessly.
  • Fantasy Fest: OK, so it’s not exactly the top priority, but, we need a silly giggle about right now. Haven’t heard a word about Fantasy Fest, which is round about the week before Halloween. I’d be disappointed if it were cancelled because I just finished making the most awesome pink tutu and glorious pink wig for the locals parade on Oct. 27. Oh, well, one can always wear a tutu in Key West; no special occasion required.

 

What we think we know

Hey, what about the vacation I booked: See above. Pretty sure the priority order will go like this: First responders, emergency services, residents and then tourists. I do know that the vacation rental companies are doing their best to re-group and figure out what’s going to happen with scheduled guests. But first they have to get their own homes and business back in operation, inspect and re-stock those homes and then figure out what to do. When I worked in the vacation rental business, we always told guests they should purchase the trip insurance because there weren’t going to be any refunds if there were a hurricane. Many didn’t want to spend the extra few bucks. Those folks are going to be unhappy in the near future, I’m sure. Hotels and resorts will have to go through the same process. In short, if you’ve got a vacation booked in the next few weeks, you might have to consider a stay-cation. Your rental company or hotel/resort will be contacting you as soon as they get their own lives back together.

And, the odds and ends

Holy Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey! We’ve collected almost 10,000 followers on the page and reached close to half a million people with our posts. There’ve been 92,000 video views. Egads and little fishes. I remain in awe of the news and information gathering and sharing commitments of John Teets, Mike Freas and Jamie Mattingly. Without them, this page wouldn’t exist.

And, the best news? No trolls! None. So, now I just jinxed it. I expect trolls to drop by; these nasty people can’t help themselves and they’re going to start posting ugly things and political diatribes. When they do, I’ll have a great deal of fun using them for chum. Let me know if you see them. I’m a political junkie (some of you know that all too well from my days as editor of the Rockford (IL) Register Star or from older posts on this website. But, I really don’t give a rat’s tail what your political soapbox is. We’re gonna work together to reclaim our island.

The best place to get real time updates is on the Facebook Page. I’ve found it particularly helpful to read through the comments as folks post during the day. I learn a lot about specific locations, people and useful information in the comments. Thank you for sharing and for helping each other.

And, an apology. I’ve tried to answer each message and question as folks post comments, but with thousands coming in now, I just can’t do personal notes. (I really do need a shower and my mom is wondering, right now, where her supper is. I told her it would be ready two hours ago.) Knowing how wonderful y’all have been through all this, I’m pretty sure you understand. I am grateful.

Good night, my friends. Each day that comes gets us closer to knowing where our friends and families are, how our houses fared — and closer to being home again.

This has long been my daily prayer. Hope it works for you, too: Show me my path. Teach me along the way. Grant me peace. Sustain my hope. Direct my anger. Let me laugh.

And, in the spirit of “let me laugh”? How about that pink flamingo wig?

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband Ed, who is a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in The Meadows with the Cat 5s.

Hurricane Irma: End of day one in Key West. What we know and don’t

Whew….. What a difference 24 hours makes. Was that a cliche or what? Sorry. I am pretty much bushed, so you’re going to have to ignore the unedited writing. Before I call it a night, I wanted to capture the day’s highlights, what we know about Hurricane Irma in Key West — and what we don’t. For regular updates, you can follow the Facebook Page, Hurricane Irma Key West.

I’ll do it the way I did back in my editor days: What we know. What we don’t know. And, what we think we know.

What we know

Hurricane Irma struck Key West, FL, as a Category 4 storm, about 8:30 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. The National Weather Service recorded 130 mph winds as the storm crossed the island. Irma made landfall at 9:14 a.m., at Cudjoe Key, which is about 20 miles north east of Key West.

  • Storm surge: Key West was spared the worst of the predicted storm surge. At final measure, surge was about 2.5 feet, almost a foot lower than in Hurricane Wilma in 2005 — and well below the predicted surge of 5-10 feet. There are scientific reasons for the lower surge, not the least of which is that the storm hit Key West at low tide. We can be grateful for the moon today.
  • Communications: You can’t get information from folks on-island. As of 11:13 p.m., Sunday, cell service to/from Key West is down. There is no internet service. Landlines — remember those old tech things? — are working. I’ve shared three calls with my Olivia Street neighbor across the street. Richard Matson and his landline have been a godsend today. Without him, I wouldn’t know much about post-storm damage. I received the last cell data text from my husband, Ed, at 8:30 a.m., just as Irma roared overhead. He was able to send one quick video before losing service. It may be days (heaven forbid, weeks) until cell towers are restored. We won’t have internet connection until we get electricity restored and networks sorted out.
  • No electricity. Repairs will begin Monday, but as with communication services, it may take days or weeks to restore residential and commercial service. (That’s why you keep a solar battery charger with you. At least you can charge your phone to take pictures.) Priority restoration will be for emergency services, first responders, medical. Our home air conditioners will wait. Ditto the ice maker.
  • Sketchy water: Water is an issue and there’s a boil order in effect as a precaution. Here’s the details from the Monroe County emergency management folks earlier Sunday evening:  “Aqueduct is aware of the problem and will send crews out Monday to repair leaks, but need to have emergency medical services available first. Crews are being sent out to check and clear US 1 up as far as MM 34 (where it is known there is a significant pole across the road) and another reported washout at MM 29. There appear to be several leaks in the system. According to FKAA they do not appear to be leaks in the main line, but rather in lines that branch off from the main line. This will allow these lines to be shut off while water continues to flow through the system. But, it will take some time to repair.”
  • Can I come home: No. Period. No. What part of no do I not understand? The county will give the go-ahead when we can start coming back. That’s not anytime soon. And, if you try to sneak down the Keys? They’re setting up roadblocks and you’ll end up camping in Homestead or somewhere equally unpleasant.
  • How bad are things in Key West? Not as bad as we feared — and not nearly as good as we hoped. Although reports from on-island remain very limited, we do know a few things. Trees are down everywhere. At least a couple roofs are gone and one house on WIlliam (I think) got clobbered by a couple trees. So, yeah, regular monster hurricane damage. Surge was not as bad as predicted (see above.) Trees are stripped to trunks and nothing much is green anymore. There was lots of flooding in all the usual areas. Key West knows where those places are. If you flooded in Wilma, the chances are most excellent you flooded in Irma. In an X flood zone? You were most likely OK. I know for certain that the 1300 block of Olivia, where my house is, did not flood, not even a drop and it appears nothing around that area did.
  • How’s my house? I have no idea. I know about two houses: mine and Matson’s across the street. He says mine is still standing and the roof is still on it. But for all I know tonight, the whole back side could be gone, though, really, that’s hyperbole. Lots of folks are asking me via my Facebook Page Hurricane Irma Key West if I know how their homes made it through the storm. I wish I could tell them, but it will be at least Monday and more likely later in the week before we get much news. I’m relieved about the 1300 block of Olivia and I’m willing to bet most of the Meadows and Old Town residential can feel the same. But I just don’t know for sure.
  • Help is on the way. Emergency everything is headed to the Keys and specifically to Key West. Utility crews, medical assistance, emergency supplies. They’ll fly the stuff in first, then bring it down the Overseas Highway — after they check the bridges, of course. In the meantime, Key West folks who stayed on-island will figure out how to conserve water, eat sparingly, make do and help each other. Because there’ll be no going to new OR old Publix for a while, and certainly no delivery from Sandy’s (although who wants to bet against me that Sandy’s will be the first to open? No takers? Yeah, figured.)

What we don’t know

Crikey, this list could go on for pages. Some of the don’t knows I included above, and I’m not alert enough at the moment to list everything we don’t know. So, let’s leave it at this: If it’s not in the “what we know list,” then we don’t know. Those of us aggregating news and information from every source we can suss out will keep going over the next few days. We know you’re craving answers; we are, too. We’ll do our best.

What we think we know

Key West took it on the chin (another cliche, if you’re counting), but the middle and upper Keys took it in the shorts. The surge was far worse up the Keys than on our island. How bad? We don’t know yet.

The bridges connecting our island “seem” to be OK, but I wouldn’t want to get out on them until they get a thorough going over, which will happen over the next few days.

Picture and information spam: Oh, dear heavens, if you see a picture showing a shark swimming around the Conch Train Depot, do not post it. You know that’s going to happen, right. If Rob O’Neal’s name is not on the pix, it isn’t real. And, yes, there are going to be stories that are posted — and then news takes a different turn. That’s not fake; it’s watching news develop in real time. Like that Shark Creek Bridge story. The first reports, and they were from solid sources, said the bridge was out. Turns out, that once inspected, it was OK. Just watch the timestamps on everything you read. If the timestamp is older than a couple hours, on breaking news, then it’s probably been updated, corrected, changed. Be a smart information consumer.

And, one more: See “what we know” and “what we don’t know” because right now it’s darn dangerous to be saying things like “I think I know” or “I heard someone say.”

And, couple of personal updates

The Facebook Page: As of 12:11 a.m., Monday, Sept. 11, (wow, there’s that date again) there are 5,000 people following our Facebook Page, 4,500 who have “liked” it; we’ve reach 320,000 people with our posts and there have been more than 33,000 video views. Dear digital heavens, said Facebook earlier this evening, that’s got to be SPAM — and they promptly shut down the page. Took like what seemed forever to convince them I as real, my account had not been hacked and, pretty please, get us back up.

That page wouldn’t have the content it does without three amazing Key West residents: John Teets, Mike Freas and Jamie Mattingly. I’m pretty sure they don’t know each other, but they’re folks who share my passion for news and information, who love Key West as I do — and who have enough friends all over the place to be able to collect the information we need. Oh, and they’re digital.

Aggregating the news and information from every credible source I could find has been a joy — and major therapy. A joy because I have made hundreds of new “friends” around the world, translated posts and messages from English to Spanish and back again (thank you Google translator), shared tears with strangers and shared your lives. A therapy because the page demands pretty much all of my brain, which means I don’t have time to worry about things like the Cat 5s or my on-island husband.

I know my house is OK because my neighbor has a landline and he updated me at noon Sunday. That should mean the Cat 5s are OK. Ed had to leave them in the house Saturday night. Their food, water, litter et al is set for four or five days — and it’s all up high in case there were any flooding. So, I suspect that the five cats will simply think we’re out shopping and pretty much ignore the fact they were left behind. Cats are most wonderful that way. They really don’t give a hairball as long as you feed them and offer an occasional scratch. But, I miss them. Yeah. we are goofy cat people. Just don’t send me cat mugs or sweatshirts.

I think I know my husband is OK. I haven’t heard from him since 8:30 Sunday morning. And, while my brain knows why, my heart? Well, my heart kinda hurts. Just as does the collective Key West heart. Not knowing how your family and friends made it through the hurricane is pretty much the pits. (Another cliche. Sorry, but it’s after midnight on Monday and I getting silly.) If I don’t hear from him in the next 24-36 hours, I’ll see if I can get someone to go check on where he was staying. I know he, Sheila and David were in one of the safest places ever, and I know they wouldn’t do something stupid like walking in water with electrical wires down, but, yeah, it’s frustrating not to know. But as I told my mother this evening, I am blessed because I know my house is OK, I think I know my Cat 5s are OK. I can’t be greedy about getting number three.

And, with that, I am out. Done for tonight. Need some sleep. You do, too. Good night, my friends. Godspeed. See you in the morning.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She is in Virginia on a family errand with her mom. She was scheduled to return to Key West on Sept. 6. Clearly that did not happen. Her husband Ed and the Cat 5s are on the island — somewhere.

 

Hurricane Irma: Saturday evening. Storm approaches Key West. Waiting. Waiting.

The first power failures came in Key West at 4:14 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. About 900 customers in the blocks around Bertha Street between Flagler and the Atlantic went dark.They’ll be joined, likely well before midnight, by the rest of Key West.

Not far behind will be the loss of cell and data service and with that those of us watching off-island will work hard not to lose our minds for days, perhaps weeks, to follow.

Because our tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic is staring down the hurricane we have dreaded for a century and talked about incessantly over happy hours. At this point on Saturday evening, it doesn’t matter whether one evacuated or stayed on-island. We are losing the mythological paradise that is our home.

We know that come Monday, we’re facing a reset that will make Hurricane Wilma’s storm surge in 2005 look like a thunderstorm. Y’all can conjure the nightmares of washed out roads and bridges to the mainland, of entire communities gone and moments of heroism and pure nastiness. We can climb a very high horse and point political fingers at governors and legislators who deny climate change and sea level rise and fail to protect this fragile state. God forbid that the tens of thousands on the roads this weekend don’t make it to safety.

Y’all do that. I might do it months from now.

Tonight, though, I am swatting my errant, apprehensive imagination. Because what’s in my brain has kept me sleepless for three days and its relentless stranglehold drives me to write. One of my bosses used to call me the “Ice Queen” because not even the worst in front of me brought tears. This is no Henny-Penny. I can stay focused and on task in chaos. I pay a price for that stoicism, but it is who I am and almost seven decades in, God isn’t going to bother to make sweeping changes.

If I were on-island, I’d be less antsy. That’s a price all of us who left are paying. We know we have no control and the waiting is crushing. So we exchange texts and pictures. We check in on each other — and we drive our stay-on-island friends and family nuts with way too many calls, texts and exhortations of “be safe.”

On Wednesday, Sept. 6, Ed and I made our final choices. He’d stay in Key West to do what he could for our neighbors and friends. He brings the compassion and skills that make him right for what comes “after.” I decided to remain with my mother in the Shenandoah Valley. I cancelled my Delta flight home, returned the rental car and tightened down my brain so those pesky emotions didn’t make me cry.

All over Key West families made similar choices. Each story is as anguished, as stomach-churning as ours. We make no presumption our story is more than one among many.

The view from my mom’s deck on Saturday eving. So very different from the views from Key West.

Those were harsh choices, but they weren’t hard. We didn’t agonize; we certainly didn’t drag in drama. We just did the right thing. Ed and I knew they were our best choices; we still do. That doesn’t mean I can sleep at night, nor does it mean we can FaceTime without wondering. Well, you know what we wonder. Enough said. (See? That’s how I do that Ice Queen thing.)

And the Cat 5s. Sarah, Molly, Jersey, Livvy — and our newest, Michael, whom we’ve had since he was a bottle-fed three or four days old. We never thought we’d be cat people. Right now, the five have the run of our home on Olivia Street in the Meadows of Key West. He had to leave them behind. They’re as safe as Ed could make them, and we’re betting our hearts they’ll make it through until Sunday night or Monday. Neither Ed or I can even think about, much less talk about the alternative. Another of those Hobson’s Choices.

None of us should judge another’s choice this week.

Writing this blog and creating the Facebook Page, Key West Hurricane Irma, gave me something complicated to focus my attention. It works so well that when I’m writing posts, answering comments, helping a page visitor to find something, I almost forget that I have a stake in this little venture.

I spent 40 years directing news coverage of countless breaking news tragedies. Not once was I uncertain that Ed would be there when I came home. It’s different this time and I’m on a fast, albeit steep, learning curve. I’m doing what I always do. I’m working, withdrawn and focused. And, begging my beautiful mother to understand why I’m not her upbeat daughter happily helping her move into her new home. I’ll get there, but not today.

I am going to take a few deep breaths, check my texts, social media and phone messages one last time and go cook dinner. Because in the midst of chaos, there’s comfort in the ordinary.

And, that’s enough pity party, folks. Key West doesn’t need sympathy, shaking heads, second guessing or psychoanalyzing. (Well, maybe we need the psychoanalyzing, but still…..) We will need your cash eventually,

Out of this disaster, out of this storm whose path of destruction will become Key West legend, will come the Key West that has an opportunity — not to rebuild — but to create. To create the infrastructure, the policies and practices, the sane, sensible development models that fluently integrate our tourist economy with a working town of permanent residents who can afford to live here.

That’s why, in part, Ed stayed. It’s why others stayed. Because they believe Key West is capable of doing the work to bring the island to life.

Time to fix supper. And not think about the Cat 5s.

Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, is in Virginia with her mother on a previously scheduled family visit. Her scheduled return to the island on Sept. 6 was cancelled. She wishes she were on-island with Ed and the five cattens. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cat 5s: Mid-morning in Key West; awaiting Hurricane Irma

Saturday, 11:24 a.m. UPDATE: Change of plans. Ed is getting the cats settled in the house and then will head to Sheila’s for the duration. She’s two-plus floors up and in a bunker building. There’s a bunch of them crammed into a small space, but, hey, it’s Key West, so a party most likely will follow and they do their best to make it through the next 36-48 hours. We decided to let the cats roam free in their home rather than cage them. Those are our babies; enough said. That’s something I neither care to think or speculate about.

ED AND THE CAT 5s: Saturday, 8:21 a.m.: Ed’s going to the Key West high school “last resort” shelter later today. He’ll walk over, about 2 miles. Going to try to get a couple of our neighbors there, too.

Cats probably going into their carriers and into the attic. We can’t let them roam the house because if it blows open, they’ll escape and drown. We’d rather they yell and poop in their carriers for 36 hours than escape into danger. If the house makes it through, Ed can rescue them.

Our house is located in an X flood zone, one of the higher places in Key West, about 7.5 feet about sea level and the structure is another 3 feet up. Ed relocated valuables, etc., even higher in the house. A 10-foot storm surge is maybe (barely) manageable. But, even though we’re buttoned down as well as one can, we think the high school is a better choice. He’s going to move the car to a slightly higher block in the neighborhood.

He’s got no wifi, so don’t send emails. But his cell is working — for now. I’ll keep you posted here. Ed’s got too much to do, and while we understand your concerns, we need to keep extraneous drama off stage.

This all sucks, my friends. Ed and I made the hardest choices of our lives on Wednesday, Sept. 6. He staying there to care for others; and me here in Virginia to be with my mother. I was to return to the island Sept. 6. And, though I wish I were there with him, I know we made the right decisions, at the right time, for the right reasons.

Our beloved son in Atlanta, E.Lee Cunningham, and his family (Sarah Biel Cunningham) are taking in cousins evacuating from Tampa (Melissa Morral Cooper).

Show me my path. Teach me along the way. Grant me peace. Sustain my hope. Re-direct my anger. And, let me laugh.

Ed and the Cat 5s: 🐈 🐈🐈🐈🐈😎

Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, is in Virginia with her mother on a previously scheduled family visit. Her scheduled return to the island on Sept. 6 was cancelled. She wishes she were on-island with Ed and the five cattens. 

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