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: 9-18-17: Please stay home for a couple three weeks

When your town’s paychecks depend on tourists, second home owners and vacation rentals, it’s downright discourteous to say “Y’all stay the heck out of here.” For sure, no one that gets paid to promote tourism in the Keys is gonna put it that bluntly. I’ll do it for them.

I’ll add “please,” because my mother suggests that’s a courteous thing. So. Please. Stay the heck out of Key West and the Florida Keys. We are flat out not ready for flushing our own toilets. Our ice is made with questionable tap water. The AC is uncertain and internet stutters like an old car. Oh, and that beautiful blue, green and crystal water you love so much? Not safe to swim in. Ditto the swimming pools, far too many of which currently resemble swamps, complete with mosquitos and logs.

Tonight, the government deciders said that on Tuesday morning the Florida City checkpoint would be removed and the Overseas Highway would be open for traffic. That’ll surely make it easier for residents and business owners to get home and fix things.

Delta announced today they were resuming a “normal” schedule Thursday. I talked with a Delta agent today (I am going home Sunday), and she said their flights were booked to the wings, demand outstripping seats. I’m sure there will be more than just residents on those flights.

It’s wonderful news that it gets easier each day to make our ways home.

It’ll also encourage thousands of the curious to come see how things are going. They’ll come, of course, with promises of helping and trunks full of things they just know will be handy — but that will simply create big piles of stuff that no one will know how to distribute.

I totally get the disappointment. Weddings at Fort Zach cancelled. Girls’ weekends gone. A once-in-a-lifetime week in paradise done for. Deposits non-refundable because you opted out of the travel insurance during hurricane season. No snorkeling, fishing or rides with the wind on a sunset sail. No late nights in the Chart Room or sound checks at the Green Parrot.

But, folks, give us a few weeks. A few is three or four. That’s all we’re asking. Just a few weeks to get our homes — and your vacation happy place — in order. Give us a few weeks to re-group our staffers so they can serve you without worrying about who is going to do child care when schools aren’t open. Give us a few weeks until the emergency responders and repair and restoration crews can go home.

As John Teets and I texted a few minutes ago: “No water, no swimming, smelly brush piles, beaucoup de mosquito and streets blocked by bucket trucks? The supermarket parking lot blocked off for relief helicopters. Yee-HAW, Margie. We want some of that!”

No. Really you don’t.

The folks who make Fantesy Fest one of Key West’s most tourist-worthy events are busting butt to make sure it happens Oct. 20-29. The folks I know who manage and staff vacation and tourist services are cutting brush, cleaning rooms, repairing vehicles, trimming and planting trees. A few weeks and you’ll be hard pressed to know Key West took it on the chin from a Category 4 hurricane.

But right now? Y’all please stay home. Some areas of the Keys will likely open before others. Contact your airlines, your hotel, your vacation rental company. They can help you decide when it’s smart to come on down.

If you really want to help, send money. Actual spending money. The Sister Season Fund, which has long raised money for direct aid to the folks who staff our tourist industry — and who are most likely to be unemployed right now. They don’t make money when things are closed; they live from check to check and tip to tip. And, they still have to pay the rent and the utilities. For them, Hurricane Irma is going to be a financial Cat 5.

As certain as I’m sitting here in my mother’s Virginia living room, typing this on my laptop, I am certain that we’ll be ready to welcome you back “home” by the middle of October. Maybe even sooner. Probably even sooner. Maybe in a couple weeks. We need you. We need your passion for our island. And, yes, we need your credit cards and tips. Lots of tips. We’re gonna love having you back.

But not tomorrow. Please. Not tomorrow.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband Ed live in Key West with their five cats, the Cat 5s. She was off-island for Hurricane Irma. He stayed in Key West.

 

Hurricane Irma: 9-17-17: Has it only been seven days?

For seven days we have shared the (cliche alert) roller coaster that began with believing Key West and the Keys might be spared the worst of Hurricane Irma as the predicted path of the Category 4 storm headed up the east coast of Florida. Wibble wobble back and forth until the storm crashed into Cudjoe Key, leaving Key West on its westerly and slightly less horrific backside — at low tide. Had we collectively ordered from a hurricane menu, Key West could not have been more delighted with the result.

As most know by now, I was in Virginia with my mother when the storm hit. My husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, remained in Key West because of personal commitments. He and our five cats, appropriately, I think, designated the Cat 5s, our house and our neighborhood escaped almost unscathed the storm’s damage.

That’s what we know today. The nightmares of a week ago are fading. A week. Just a week. The flooding receded. The downed trees and debris are being removed. Lights turn on across most of the island. Cell and data service means we’re texting and sticking our heads into our hands-cum-phones. Gasoline, food, construction and repairs supplies remain in short supply, but stock is coming down the Keys and I’m betting Jeff Bezos is going to have Amazon Prime deliveries back on track in a week. Running water remains at premium, and thus toilet flushing is a luxury. That, too, will resolve itself.

Each hour there’s a growing sense that everything is OK in Key West. I suspect, though, that those of us who are off-island have a slightly rosy view of how things are. Photographs and videos of bright sunshine and intact homes don’t smell. They aren’t hot and sweaty. They aren’t swatting mosquitos. And, our focus on what Key West and the Upper Keys escaped belies the destruction between the two.

Not for those communities a return to air conditioning and some hard work with bleach and a chain saw. For them, there’s little left except the catastrophe of not knowing what to do next. That could as easily have been Key West on Sunday morning. As we celebrate our great good fortune, may we forebear doing so at the expense of our neighbors and friends, Our sister islands need us, the fortunate ones.

A week ago I was a Facebook post or a column away from panic. To know that in mere hours everything that makes my life my life could be swept away was paralyzing and so I keep posting, kept writing. This is what I wrote last Saturday night:

 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.

 

Tonight, I’m tired. I know you are as well. Humans can’t absorb that much emotional hurricane and come away unscathed. I am glad we have been together this week. Without you, John Teets and I would not have kept at it for virtually 24-7. We did what we did because we’re old, “warhorse” journalists who cannot imagine deserting our community. We did it because, well, at the time, no one else was.

We stopped counting when we reached 800,000 people. More than 220,00 video views. In. One. Week. We knew if we needed the information, so did others, but we never expected an audience this size.

But, you know what was best of all? The sheer civility of this community. No trolls. No mis-directed anger. In a world where social media has become a swamp of bots, trolls and angry pejoratives, spending the week with you has been an affirmation that most people are good people. Thank you.

And, with that, good night, my friends. John and I will wind down the page over the next day or so.  It’s time for this most splendid hurricane house party to wind down. We’ll put together a list of best websites and Facebook pages for those who want to keep going. I’ll write the occasional aftermath column. I’ve got clients wondering if I am ever going to get back to building their websites. It’s been our pleasure.

Oh, and about the Cat 5s. Electricity was restored at our house at 4:15 this afternoon. The AC is on. The pool pump is running. Ed’s doing the laundry. And, the Cat 5s (three of them, anyway) are stretched on on the bed for the first time in a week. They hated the heat and preferred the cooler floor to a warm bed. It’s an awful picture, but, hey, we love our fur babies.

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

Hurricane Irma | 9-16-17: This Key West homecoming ain’t some kind of “glamping”

Home! You can go home on Sunday. Though why in the world you would escapes me tonight.

Monroe County officials told off-island folks today they could return to the Lower Keys, including Key West, Sunday morning. That “welcome home” is filled with so many caveats that thinking people will beg their evacuation hosts and hotels for another week of hospitality.

I know, I do get it. None of us will be contented until we take down the shutters and start hauling tree limbs to the curb. If Ed weren’t already there doing just that, I would be so casual about deciding to stay away at least another week. Privileged or not, driving home on Sunday ranks right up there with “what part of this mess do you not understand”?

Ed and I love pack-in-pack-out camping. In April we spent three nights and four days at Fort Jefferson out in the Dry Tortugas. We’d have stayed longer, but that’s the park service limit for one trip. Pack-in-pack-out isn’t for the dainty or those who hate bugs. It’s especially not for those who require showers and toilets that don’t, well, smell like something dead.

Keep that in mind if you’re considering a return within the week. I’m staying in Virginia with my mom until at least Saturday, Sept. 23; and that’s assuming Delta is doing commercial flights by then. Non-emergency air travel to Key West is on-hold indefinitely. I miss Ed and the Cat 5s — not necessarily in that order, though I’m not telling him — but, really, why would I want to go back to:

  • No running, potable water. If you didn’t leave — or don’t bring with you — at least one gallon per day per person of drinking water, you’re gonna get powerful thirsty. Unless, of course, you feel entitled to having the government give you emergency water.
  • Toilets I gotta flush — occasionally — with a five gallon bucket from the pool
  • Sketchy electric. Sure, it’s coming back, and it’s also unstable. The Meadows where I live does not have power as of 6 p.m., Saturday. And likely won’t anytime soon because there are still wires hanging and trees and debris blocking access to lines running into people’s houses.
  • Food that’s left over from two weeks ago. Or canned tuna and protein drinks. Sigh. I prefer some fresh vegetables, and there sure aren’t any of those around. Just because Publix and Winn-Dixie are open for a few hours each day, doesn’t mean they have stuff. Remember, they haven’t had restocking deliveries since before the storm.
  • No building supplies. If you don’t have a bunch of tools and construction supplies lying around the house, you’re not going to get them at home. Yes, Strunk’s and Home Depot are open for a few hours daily — but they’re like the grocery stores. Nothing much you’ll need do they have. Ed said this evening that construction repair-type stock and grocery store items are in very short supply everywhere — and there are no tractor trailers headed to Key West any time soon.
  • No gasoline. See above re: groceries and construction supplies. Just because you’re seeing posts that say “YEAH! There’s gas!” doesn’t mean there’s enough food, fuel, water, electric, et al for 30,000 people to return to the Keys and Key West.
  • No medical care and no new meds. There are minor emergency medical care services, but anything more than simple stuff gets helicoptered off-island. Please don’t tax the emergency medical staff if you don’t have to.
  • No Amazon Prime. I mean, really, someone asked me that today. No UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Post Office are not delivering your mail or your packages, and probably won’t anytime soon.
  • That strict, we-will-arrest-you curfew. You cannot be on the streets of Key West in any shape or fashion between dusk and dawn. Given the unholy traffic jams that are going to turn the Overseas Highway into a parking lot, do you really want to arrive at about Key Haven and be told to turn around or stay in your stinking car with the dog and the kids overnight?
  • Twenty-one checkpoints coming down the Keys. You’ll not get into any town without an official local address. Period.
  • No place to live if your house isn’t habitable. The shelters are few and far between and offer virtually no services. Bring a tent.
  • And this one just in: Tropical Storm Maria is expected to become a major hurricane over the next few days. And, she may start eyeing the Florida Keys. Sigh.

Still determined to rush back to clean out the refrigerator? (Though why in Hannah’s heaven you didn’t toss it all before you left, I cannot fathom.) Google pack-in-pack-out camping and get a list of what you’ll need to buy before you even get close to Florida City. ‘Cuz you ain’t gonna get it in Key West.

PS: The Cat 5s, says Ed, are doing great. Even shy, hideaway Molly is out and about. Guess they’re getting used to the heat. Indoor cats are as persnickity about no air conditioning as their humans.

Now, go beg your hosts to let you stay a few more days. Or a week. A month could be pushing it, I guess.

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

 

 

 

 

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