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.

Camping at Fort Jefferson | 10 insider tips no one tells you

Right there on its own website, the National Park Service warns you: Camping at Fort Jefferson National Park in the Dry Tortugas is “primitive camping.”

I’m pretty sure no one takes that too seriously. These are the days of “glamping,” where camping comes in a huge recreational vehicle with a king-size bed and air conditioning or a tent the size of Texas and wifi. How primitive could it be?

Fort Jefferson is a pack-in-pack-out camp ground. Fewer than a dozen small sites cluster among the scrub trees just outside the entrance to the fort and a few steps from the Atlantic Ocean. What you need, you bring. What you bring, you take out. Food. Water. Gear. There’s no corner store, no takeout delivery — and most assuredly, no cell service or wifi.

And, yet. This is one of the most sought-after, most soul-soothing experiences on the planet.

Forty years ago, my husband, Ed and I camped on the then-desolate Outer Banks of North Carolina for our honeymoon. Over the following four decades, I traded camping gear for resort hotels and he added to his gear with Scout trips to Philmont and the Boundary Waters. When we moved to Key West in 2012, we brought all that gear with us. As our 40th anniversary approached we decided, what the heck, we’ll do one last celebratory hurrah with a camping trip to Fort Jefferson.

We figured we’d ditch the gear after the trip. That was before. We will return. Soon. Because despite the 20-30 mph winds for four days and three nights, despite a gale force storm with pounding rain that threatened to blow away our tent (and did destroy the neighbors’), camping alongside that massive fort, under the stars in the silence is magical.

The national park’s website has the details you’ll need, right down to a darn-near perfect packing checklist. No need to repeat them. But, there are a handful of observations and suggestions we’d offer to round out that checklist.

  • Bring a solar charger: If you’re a Kindle junkie, which we are, then over four days you’re going to need to power-up that book. Ditto your cell phones that you’re using for cameras.
  • You can leave the toilet paper rolls at home: The park service calls them compost toilets. I call them outhouses-with-flare. In other words, they’ve got a “real seat”  and rolls of paper. You can save space by not bringing your own. Bring along those “emergency” pee bottles, too, because walking through the hermit crabs in the dead of night to the outhouse ain’t on anyone’s list of fun things to do. And, there are actual laws about public urination, even if it is dark and is right outside your tent door.
  • Water: They tell you at least one gallon per day per person. Do not underestimate that advice and think you can cheat. I’d recommend two gallons per day per person, especially if you intend to stay decently hydrated. And, forget bringing along all those gallon jugs. Get the big 7.5 gallon camping versions. Water doesn’t count in your total 60-ish pound per person gear limit. And the bigger containers are easier to pack and carry.
  • Kids: Got ’em. Love ’em. Not sure if this kind of camping is going to make kids happy. You know your kids, so consider: There really, really, really isn’t anything to “do.” There are only so many times you can wander around the fort looking for the crocodile and admiring the birds. Water sports are snorkeling and swimming; kayaking if you bring your own. And, except for the summer months when it’s hotter than blue blazes on the island and humid like wet wool, the water can be a bit brisk. In the winter months, it’s downright cold. Bring along the iPad and the video games — and the solar charger.
  • Tip the ferry folks: No kidding, these guys work hard to help you load and unload that gear. And, you’ll love that you can use their warm-water showers on the back of the ferry each day. No soap or shampoo, of course, but a good rinse can make your day
  • Staying clean: I’ll admit the only part of primitive camping I don’t like is no showers. So, I decided to take along a box of those baby wipes. Then, it occurred to me: Someone must have invented a bath towel size one of these wipes by now. Sure enough, Googled that puppy and there they were. One does a big guy; two is heavenly, and I even used one to scrub my hair after a salt water adventure. I cannot recommend these strongly enough: Epic Wipes.
  • When to go: Chances are you’ll need to make reservations months in advance. There are only 10 campsites and they are in demand year-round. But, if I were picking the perfect months, I’d go for April, May and maybe June, and late October and November. The water will be warm enough to enjoy paddling around and the days and evenings will be cool enough that you won’t think about trading your first born for air conditioning. Note though that hurricanes can linger in October and November. Just saying.
  • Bring a shade something-something: If you’re not among the four lucky campers who grab one of the campsites in the trees, you’re likely to be right out there in the open. So, if you’ve got one and you’ve got the space, pack one of those shade things.
  • Double — triple — stake your tent: I’m serious. The wind is constant and then there are the big winds and gusts. You’re pounding stakes into sand and coral but, believe me, you’ll be glad you did.
  • Pack yours clothes, then unpack half of them: You will not need them — and it will give you room to pack a couple of extra towels. Towels won’t dry out there, not even the microfiber ones. Extras come in handy.
  • Bonus tip: Take instant coffee (Starbucks makes a great one). You’ll never, ever heat water to a boil so making “real” coffee isn’t going to happen. But you can get it warm enough to make a decent cup of joe for the morning and evening. You can only use Sterno and self-lighting charcoal. No gas allowed.
  • And, plan to return. Like I said, it’s magical.

Linda Grist Cunningham is owner and editor of KeyWestWatch Media, which builds websites and manages social media for small businesses. She and her husband moved to Key West in 2012. Ed owns Tree Priorities and is a park ranger at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West.




Key West: Manhattan but no skyscrapers

Key West. Manhattan without the skyscrapers.

It’s a comparison helpful in explaining why Key West isn’t Florida. The cheek-by-jowl closeness of houses whose neighbors share their breakfast flavors and domestic squabbles – and hear their toilets flush at bedtime.

The dissonance of a dozen different languages and a hundred regional accents competing down Duval Street from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. The theater and the art galleries, the music, five-star restaurants and corner coffee shops, the ethnic neighborhoods, festivals and parades.

Breathtaking wealth juxtaposed against crushing poverty. Jaw dropping real estate prices where 600-square-feet and no outdoor space top half a million – plus condo fees.

It’s the idea, as one long-time Key West resident puts it, that the man with whom you’re discussing the relative value of apples at Fausto’s, the local boutique grocer, might well have had dinner with the Queen of England the day before.

At 22.7 square miles, much of it covered with concrete and asphalt, Manhattan long ago forgot it was an island. Not so much Key West.

Key West looks out its 4.2-square-miles of collective windows each morning across open water closer to Cuba than Miami. Key West knows it’s one hurricane, one storm tidal surge, away from trading its multi-million dollar economy for a spit of sand and a handful of palm trees.

Climate change and sea level rise are dinner table conversations in Key West.

There are the oh-so-awares who might happily nail up the NIMBY signs just below the Seven Mile Bridge, or maybe closer in at Stock Island. No trespassers beyond this point.

There is the economic development crowd for whom finding a viable balance between preserving the environment and boosting the economy ends them all too often in a no-win controversy, painted (sometimes fairly; sometimes not) as putting cash before conservation.

There are those who work the tourist trade, who fish and dive, clean the parks and renovate the houses. All know climate change and sea level rise will alter how their grandchildren live on this island.

Key West disagrees, often heatedly, about solutions. The unarguable effects are so far in the future, there’s no shortage of “don’t worry; be happy.” But, everyone knows that someday a hospital, a school, the favorite tourist haunts will be awash.

Hurricane Sandy reminded Manhattan the last week of October that it, too, is an island, subject to the vagaries of salt water, tides and wind that Key West takes in stride.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasted no time as he made clear that climate change and sea level rise were instrumental in driving the violence of the storm that paralyzed his city.

Hurricane Sandy afforded Bloomberg a bully pulpit to re-up on the 197-page, 2011 update to his original 2007 PlaNYC 2030 comprehensive, quality of life project.

On Nov. 1, Bloomberg wrote on

“Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Key West has its own climate action plan. Monroe County is completing its. The Southeast Florida Four County Region has one.

Key West. Manhattan without the skyscrapers. Both facing the same challenges of climate change and sea level rise – and both prepared to find solutions.

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