I was in Ireland helping a friend repatriate after, as a naturalized U.S. citizen, he was feeling the unwelcoming sting of Donald Trump. While enjoying my first pint of Guinness, my mind was drifting from the political conflicts in America when I was pinged on my iPhone about a weather disturbance off the African continent. In a few days it would be named Irma, a force that would alter my life and the futures of loved ones.
Key West is in so many ways a metaphor for aspirations in life - free expression, community, creativity, spiritualism, mirth, merriment and fraternity. Situated as to be one of Florida's most sunny and rain free places in the tropics, it is our positioning behind Cuba and a great reef that often protects us from storms moving northward.
But in 2017, with warming and rising seas, the barriers were being tested in all coastal communities. Houston was still digging out from Harvey's devastation when Irma caused Keys’ residents to image an improbable proposition. Does one leave or stay?
Already cable news was raising bets on a direct Florida hit, which opened the gates for “experts” to speculate with limited knowledge about how Floridians should face the coming week. The spaghetti models being released by America's weather hierarchy at NOAA were unpredictable. The eventual confirmation of a Florida strike was given with the uncertainty of a bull in a ring.
Our home was being overseen by two good buddies who, with their pup, Grizzly, joined our two, Rider and Casper, and our cat, Orbit, and the goldfish. We are positioned in what is called the "X" zone in Key West, the highest area on the rock and without need for flood insurance. Being a native of storm-ravaged Louisiana, elevation is very important. With new hurricane protective shudders, a boat nearby with a generator and full tank of fuel for keeping cool, and a fenced property to take on hurling debris, we felt our home site was safe.
Each passing hour brought news about the path of Irma. "A direct hit on Miami"..."Marco Island, Fort Meyers, and Tampa-St. Pete may get 15 feet of storm surge, get out!" said the weather forecasters. So, from Key West do you evacuate east, west or stay put?
My circus decided to hunker down and stay put, as reports showed Key Largo as a target during decision-making time, with Key West 80 miles away from the eye of the storm. We all went to sleep never imagining the storm would move toward the west and that Key West would become her target. With electricity and the Internet still up but evacuation sketchy, we contacted the home team and they determined a stronger building shelter was the best choice to ride out the storm. Dogs, cat and our pals closed off the world and remained safe.
It was a tense time and, although we were on vacation in Europe, our minds were in Irmaland. First word was that the storm has come ashore only twenty miles northeast of our southernmost city, sparing it from the violent side of the hurricane’s surge and winds. Those on the western eye faced destruction.
Worry for our friends up the Keys was mixed with a sense of relief for missing the greater wrath of Irma. Word slipped out that Key West was dark but shining. Humanity and acts of caring sprang forth as signs of battered and courageous life emerged. Good friends had saved our boat, cared for our family, protected our home and watched over our business.
Our mayor asked all to stay away who could do so, as not to stress the weakened local infrastructure. Some folks held back and others anxiously came home at first chance. There have been spats on social networks about choices, staying, leaving, returning soon or not at all. Anger, egos and raw sentiments showed the uglier, personal side of storm damage for some. All of this made me think that such disasters are a cleansing or detox opportunity for a community. Through postings, I now have a better idea of who has strong will, a need for attention, or a good heart. I also know of the angels who needn't utter a word to be in service to their fellow man.
Our lovely shop, The Peace Store, has more of a mission to spread love than ever. In a turbulent world, we want Peace to be prime among our thoughts. My partner and I are making sure that Key West will always be home to our business.
It will take time for the flowers to bloom again and we will need to be patient. We were lucky to have a mayor and police chief hovering over our town with good sense and little drama or grandstanding. And there were so many others whose actions bear witness to a place stronger than a big storm.
We now arrive after taking the long way home, full of spirit and desire to play our role in the remaking of the next chapter of Key West.
What is most apparent and amazing, however, is the good will and strength to, not only endure, but reclaim our little paradise that is close to perfect but far from normal.