Hurricane Irma: 9-23-17: Closing up shop. Saying Godspeed. Going home to the Cat 5s

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.




Hurricane Irma: Meet John Teets without whom there would be trolls

By John Teets
The man behind those personal messages and comments


Hi, everybody. I’m John Teets.

Linda Grist Cunningham has been Penn and I’ve been Teller since just after this thing started. I’ve stood quietly to the side doing folded-napkin tricks and sweeping up the stage while she’s done her amazing sleight-of-word act with news and solid features, capped by the thoughts and feelings she shared in the nightly sign-off posts that have let you know almost as well as I do what a joy it is to meet her mind and heart.

She’s a fellow Irma evacuee who knew she could look in on our islands via various new media even when Keys people couldn’t shout out. I saw what my island friend was doing here on Facebook and instantly volunteered to help. It was a natural: We’re both retired from newspapers, we both like *real* news and we both feel a gut-level need to share it with people who might want or need to hear it.

Your response, of course, has been overwhelming and heartwarming. We accept your many thanks for our page humbly (sometimes, anyway; we’re pretty proud when we do a job well). But hey, it’s what we’ve always done. When we hear an alarm going off, we perk up, grab a laptop and helmet, climb on the truck and buckle up for the ride.

And this lady driver is an ace. “Info is king,” she texted me late the other night, when we were both punch-drunk from incoming news. No kidding. You know the drill from her by now: What we know, what we don’t know….

What *I* know is that all of us from Key West – those of us who went through whatever, getting out or staying, or only “from” because that’s where a big part of our heart lives  – will have memories of this experience forever, and they’ll always circle back to who went through it with us in the worst of it.

Linda went through it with me. Separated by 500 miles up here in Tennessee (me) and Virginia (her), each a thousand miles from the ones we love at home, but close to each other as a key click. Just as important, we could go through it with several hundred thousand of you. It’s been an honor.

I’ve had some great bosses. (OK, some real pips the other way, too, but my lips are sealed.) I’m happy to say she was among the best. (Hello, Lois Wille! I love you! You’re why it has to be “among.”)

So the next time Linda asks me to dance, I’ll be delighted to whirl around the floor. Of course, she can lead. She knows how to do it with no doubt about where the two of you are going – and so gracefully.

John Teets is a (sorta) retired journalist who spent decades with the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. He lives in Key West — and Tennessee when there’s a hurricane. John researched and posted news and information throughout our two weeks. He whacked our handful of trolls and he was the voice you heard in our messages, our personal responses and our comments. Tens of thousands of you met John and never knew. 

Hurricane Irma: Our choices for best Keys charities


The temptation is to pack up supplies to send. Resist.

Make a cash donation to a reputable, local charitable organization. Supplies, no matter how well intentioned, too often end in towering piles with no efficient way of distributing them.

Cash is a far better idea. A donation to the right group means funds are used well and go directly to the locals who need them most. Over the past two weeks, there’ve been countless suggestions — and equally as many potentially self-serving online funding campaigns. Our Facebook Page, Key West Hurricane Irma, vetted all requests before posting them

On Sept, 13, when Key West resident Quincy Perkins posted his own vetted list, we knew this would be the best solution for those wanting to contribute. Quincy is director of development for the Key West Film Festival, director of the Key West Photography Festival and creative direction of the White Orchid Studios.

Quincy Perkins’ complete list from his Facebook page:

Here is an official, verified list of Florida Keys Charities that really need your help. Please share and donate today!They are all on the ground in the Keys already helping. Lots of options! (Thank you to Michael Marrero, Jenn Stefanacci and Joanne Bachman for all your help with this.)

United Way of the Florida Keys: Will be accepting donations and distributing donations through their partner agencies across Monroe County including feeding programs, after-school care, and emergency gap services.

The Florida Keys Outreach Coalition: Seeking funding to help clients of FKOC’s homeless shelters and supportive housing programs, funding prevention and intervention services to help community members with rent, necessary living expenses, replacement clothing, food, relocation funds and other needs throughout Monroe County. Donations can be made through PayPal or Just Give at or by contacting .

Monroe Association of Remarkable Citizens: Seeking funds to help cover the costs of evacuating their clients out of Monroe County and providing housing and basic life-sustaining needs, as well as coping with massive damage to their main building. Donations can be made online at or by contacting

AH of Monroe County: Seeking funds to assist clients affected by HIV with costs related to evacuation, relocation, health care and living expenses as Monroe County picks up the pieces after Hurricane Irma.

Catholic Charities: Donations can be designated for Monroe County in the note section through the diocesan website at  Catholic Charities provides rental assistance countywide for any community members in need.

KAIR: Will be providing recovery assistance in Marathon, including food and basic necessities such as diapers and medicine. Donations can be made at www.kaironline.netthrough Paypal.

Womankind: The healthcare provider for women, men and teens in the Lower Keys will work with patients to ensure that their family-planning and healthcare needs are being met. Many patients are service-industry employees who depend on tourism. As our tourism economy regenerates, Womankind will offer reduced-cost services so no one is left without needed care.

First Baptist Church Islamorada: Seeking funds to support community meals and support services to get all community residents’ lives back in order. They offer a clothing closet and food pantry. Donations can be made at

Florida Keys Healthy Start Coalition: Assists pregnant women, infants, children up to age 5 and their families throughout Monroe County with diapers, wipes, formula, safety items, clothing, prenatal care, car seats, safe sleeping beds and practices.

S.O.S. Foundation: Operates a massive food distribution program and is in need of a new roof for their food services to gain a new base as soon as possible. Donations can be made at

FLKeys SPCA: The shelter evacuated 200 animals last week and hopes to bring them all back ASAP — and will be overrun with newly abandoned animals who will need care and possibly medical attention upon return. It also will need foster homes for owners who will be living in temporary places that don’t allow pets.

Southernmost Boys and Girls Club: Will be helping to watch kids while parents clean up and get lives back in order. Donate at

Key West Wildlife Center: KWWC needs funds to repair damaged outdoor recovery cages, replace food supplies lost without refrigeration and care for native wildlife injured in the storm.

Sister Season Fund: Established to help locals in the tourism-related industry when temporary financial emergencies occur. We believe these individuals make up the island’s infrastructure and we can’t afford to lose them. Typically they have  little in the way of reserves, insurance or benefits. Qualified applicants can receive financial assistance to help keep a roof over their heads and keep the utilities turned on. Donations can be made at

– – – – –

Other worthy local organizations from our own list:

Wesley House Family Services: The most immediate need is helping foster families cover costs related to evacuating and remaining on the mainland. Donations can be made at

Samuel’s House: Serves women, women with children and intact families. It will be accepting and distributing donations of clothes, food, water. All cash donations go back into the community as well by helping affected families​ and individuals with everything from medical expenses, clothing, and basic needs to housing and utility assistance.

Grimal Grove on Big Pine Key: The grove was devastated by Irma. Growing Hope Initiative’s mission for the Grimal Grove is to revitalize and showcase the history and landscape architecture that made it a natural wonder of the Florida Keys. It offers visitors a unique edible park, community arts and education center and an epicenter for self-sufficiency in the Florida Keys.
FAVOR: Friends and volunteers of refuges for Key deer and other wildlife.

Dolphin Research Center:

Marathon Wild Bird Center, Inc.

Hurricane Irma: Our choices for best Keys news sources



As John Teets and I wind down our coverage of Hurricane Irma, we know many of our followers want to stay connected to the latest news and updates. We’ve gathered what we consider the best, most reliable and most credible sources, many of which we relied on over the past two weeks.

Our links take you to the websites or Facebook pages we consider worthy of bookmarking and following. A few tips for for efficiently tapping into those sources:


  1. Click the link to the page in which your interested.
  2. Like the page.
  3. Follow the page. This helps ensure you see posts from the source. Facebook doesn’t share everything every page posts. Following the page improves your chances of seeing posts.
  4. Choose “see first in news feed.” This helps Facebook know you want to see posts from this page near the top of your news feed. It’s not perfect, but it helps.
  5. Choose “most recent” rather than “top stories” in your news feed. You’ll find that button on the top left corner of your news feed page on laptops. Use the drop-down menu to choose. And, check it frequently, because Facebook often allows it to revert to the default “top stories.” On mobile devices, use the top-right “hamburger” button to call up your personal menu. Scroll down to feeds and select “most recent.”
  6. You can always see the entire feed from a page by visiting the page directly.


  1. Click the link to the website.
  2. Bookmark it for easy return.

Our choices for best news sources

Monroe County Board of County Commissioners: Hands-down, the best source of information. Commissioner Heather Carruthers was an amazing resource during and after Hurricane Irma. Her posts were often found in this Facebook page, especially because the county itself was not posting timely information. Now, the county is using the page for consistent, reliable updates.

Commissioner Sam Kaufman: Sam Kaufman continues to post updates to his Facebook page. Without Sam we’d have been hard-pressed to know what was happening in the city during and after the storm. Sam was posting even when the city itself was not.

104.1 FM Radio: The awesome, tireless professionals at US 1 Radio were the only source of news and information for those who remained on-island during the storm. Their relentless 24-7 coverage was nothing short of jaw-dropping. The link is to their Facebook Page, but we’d suggest listening in via internet. 

Gwen Filosa: Gwen is a reporter for The Reporter and The Keynoter newspapers and Florida Keys News. She stayed on the job during and after the storm using extensive social media platforms and contacts for strong coverage. She was among the first journalists to post video and Live Facebook feeds from the Keys and Key West. Gwen had access to official sources. Her reporting is also appearing in the Miami Herald.

Monroe County Sheriff’s Department: Sheriff Rick Ramsay used his personal government page to keep folks updated on law enforcement efforts. Rick was the best source for credible information that dispelled rumors coming from other pages.

National Weather Service Key West: These folks posted via social media virtually 24-7 as Hurricane Irma barrelled toward and through the Keys and Key West. As our first and primary source of news and information from Key West, we are grateful to the men and women who reported live from White Street.

Keys Energy Services: Not only did Keys Energy do a smashing job of restoring power to Key West, they also used their social media accounts and radio appearances to keep folks connected and up to date.

Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority: As with Keys Energy, FKAA did an awesome job of social media connections — and getting the water turned on.

Keys Recovery: Launched several days after the storm, the Keys Recovery website is a repository for Monroe County’s news releases regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. The county says it is the official source for information. It does provide a list of links to sources for disaster aid, volunteering and contributions. We used this website occasionally after the storm, although it was not a primary source. We recommend it here because its content may get stronger over the next weeks.

City of Key West: The city’s Facebook page is finally posting consistent and credible updates.

Florida Keys Mosquito Control District

Monroe County Fire and Rescue Department

Volunteer Florida: How to volunteer most effectively to assist Hurricane Irma victims.


Comprehensive Hurricane Irma recovery assistance from the feds. Excellent one-stop source.

FEMA disaster assistance: General information

Apply for FEMA disaster assistance


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