The Florida Keys were my home for 10 years. Specifically, I lived on Cudjoe Key at mile marker 23 which means it is right above Key West with the southernmost point being mile marker zero. Although I had been in St. Pete for several years when hurricane Irma hit in 2017, I watched the news as the damage unfolded with a sick feeling in my stomach. Despite that I had sold my former home there and closed my business, it all still felt like it was hitting home.
Key West was left virtually physically unaffected. Irma’s eye hit right over my old house in Cudjoe Key and spared the area to the west. The Lower Keys and Marathon were the most severely impacted, but damage was done all the way up to Key Largo.
“Almost 5,000 properties were damaged or heavily destroyed by Hurricane Irma when it made landfall at Cudjoe Key on Sept. 10, 2017. Rebuilding those lost homes has been extremely slow. According to county data, only 228 permits for demolition of properties destroyed or badly damaged have been submitted since the storm. Only 27 permits have been filed to rebuild single family homes and just three have been submitted for new mobile homes.”*
Immediately after hurricane Irma, the landscape of the Keys was drastically diminished with many downed trees and trees and shrubs stripped of leaves. I spoke to my good friend Loren Rea who lives in Sugarloaf Key (MM 16) and asked for her perspective on life in the Keys post-Irma. “It is amazing to see how much things have grown back,” said Rea. The tropical climate of the Keys has allowed for fast regrowth. This includes the mangroves which were affected but are also growing back.
In the Lower Keys and Key West, things look pretty normal. But in Big Pine Key, clean-up work is still in progress. Now a year later, groups still go out on organized weekend cleanups to remove debris from canals and mangroves. Keys residents have self-coordinated to do some of the clean-up themselves.
Some of the islands were shifted by Irma. Picnic Island, a long-time popular hangout spot for boaters, is now 3 separate islands according to Rea. Local fishing guides are out putting anglers on fish just as they were before Irma.
The chart below of closed sales by month shows that most months after hurricane Irma have had a significantly lower number of closed sales than the preceding year. Prices, however, have continued to rise with the median price up 4.3%. The supply of inventory in the Keys is much higher than the rest of the country with 9.2 months compared to the average of 2.9 in most of Tampa Bay. Median time to sale in the Keys is 141 days compared to 65 in Pinellas County.
The labor force is now 11% smaller than it was before Irma. * Rea said that the effects of a decreased population and workforce are felt in daily life. Lack of staff in doctors’ offices, stores and restaurants is affecting service. The Keys population swells in winter-months with snowbirds and vacationers. But the year-round residents are those working in the restaurants, hotels and other tourist attractions. Post-Irma the Keys had a housing shortage. Many displaced due to damaged properties found temporary harbor in hotels but were pushed out once tourist season rolled around. Some residents just couldn’t withstand the loss of income felt around the hurricane. And some landlords capitalized on the housing shortage, and raised rents adding to the financial blow. The suicide rate in the Keys doubled post-Irma,** and every resident seems to have known a handful of people lost to it.
Every hurricane is unique just as the Keys are a unique place.
*Hudson, Tom: Health News Florida, “Rebuilding The Florida Keys One Year After Irma,” 9/7/18
**Florida Keys Cope With Suicide Spike After Hurricane Irma, http://health.wusf.usf.edu/post/florida-keys-cope-suicide-spike-after-hurricane-Irma