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. 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 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: 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.

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