CUDJOE KEY — When the eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Cudjoe Key, Cindy Dresow and Jim Hoffman ran to grab the cushions off the couch of their 48-year-old, oval-shaped home.
The winds had ripped a hole in their aging roof. They had to plug it fast, with whatever was at hand. Soon, the ferocious gales would start up again. But somehow the cushions held.
"We are very fortunate for being directly in the eye," said Hoffman, 70. The eye offered an hour of relief from the 130 mph winds raging around the calmness at the center of the Category 4 storm.
Even so, as the couple surveyed the damage on Cudjoe on Monday morning, a day after Irma passed, they knew they had been lucky. Early Sunday, a historic railway caboose house down the street had sat on the ocean side of the Overseas Highway. By Monday, it had jumped across the road to face Florida Bay. The storm moved it like a toy train.
Irma delivered a nasty blow over the weekend to the Florida Keys, the 110-mile, low-lying island chain that ambles southwest from Miami into warm ocean waters. The storm made landfall on Cudjoe at 9:10 a.m. Sunday. All day up and down the Keys, the winds and raging seas flung boats onto land and damaged homes. Fallen trees and live wires blocked roads; debris was scattered like confetti.
Monday afternoon, it wasn't clear how many people were dead. A car crash killed one man before the storm hit. But it seemed likely Irma had taken more lives than that. First responders were only just moving into the Upper and Middle Keys, where the damage was worst, on Monday morning. But Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt described the potential death toll as low, saying he believes so far "it's in the single digits."
Gov. Rick Scott said he saw chaos Monday morning flying over the Keys in a U.S. Coast Guard HC-144 Ocean Sentry.
"My heart goes out. There's devastation. I just hope everybody survived," Scott said after landing at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport. "For our entire state, especially the Keys, it's going to be a long road."
His plane also flew over Southwest Florida, where Irma made landfall at Marco Island on Sunday shortly after 3:30 p.m. Asked where the worst damage was, Scott said the area between Key West and Marathon.
"We saw a lot of boats washed ashore," the governor said. "Almost every trailer park, everything was overturned."
Roughly 79,000 people live on the Keys. While tourists and most residents fled the storm's approach, 10,000 stubborn stay-behinds ignored mandatory evacuation orders, either because they couldn't face leaving their homes or because they didn't know where to go. Now, they are trapped by debris. At least they can start rebuilding their homes, while those who left the islands are stuck across the narrow strip of water that separates the Keys from the mainland.
On Monday, with the entire archipelago locked down, police blocked frustrated evacuees from crossing Card Sound Bridge and the Overseas Highway, the twin gateways to the islands, and returning to their homes.
"I have friends that need help. I have supplies for them," said Key Largo resident Tony Gibus, waiting impatiently with dozens of other Keys residents at a closed RaceTrac gas station near Card Sound Road. "We're capable people in the Keys, we don't need our hands held. … We're not tourists."
But Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Joe Sanchez said return was impossible. And he had no idea when roads would be cleared.
"We have a lot of debris on the road. We have wires down, live wires," Sanchez explained. "We have to give the proper authorities the opportunity to go down and evaluate the danger."
FHP troopers drove down U.S. 1 early Monday morning but got only to Mile Marker 88 in Islamorada, he said. Trees, pieces of battered homes, masses of storm-surge seaweed and even a few Sea Doo personal watercraft blocked their progress. The Florida Department of Transportation had cleared six of the 42 bridges that connect the Keys as safe for travel. But gas was unavailable and there was no cell phone service. A dusk-to-dawn curfew is in effect in Monroe County, which includes the Keys.
With parts of Overseas Highway caked in thick layers of sea grass, bulldozers began clearing the road early Monday to allow authorities to return — and they did. Around 10 a.m., an impressive caravan of Monroe County emergency crews was able to squeeze through.
By early afternoon, the road was passable, but only barely, as it was littered with appliances, street signs, trash bins, coconuts, coolers and countless palm fronds. Miami Herald reporters journeyed from Key West to Miami, dodging debris and piercing a tire on a twisted, fallen street sign.
In Marathon, the airport had reopened for military crews, but only after several overturned small planes were cleared from the runway. In Grassy Key, the roadside litter included several wooden cottages from the Seashell Resort — storm surge gutted the ground-level rooms, sweeping even the hotel's five-foot, shell-shaped sign across the Overseas Highway.
It will be days or even weeks before water, sewers and electricity are restored, according to Scott.
Key West, the continental United States' southernmost point, had no power, water or flushing toilets Monday, even though it avoided a catastrophic blow from Irma. "We cannot support another mouth," said City Manager Jim Scholl.
Not that the locals mind — by Sunday afternoon, as Irma's winds continued to slam the island, two bars on Duval Street had already reopened. They were packed.
The Department of Defense announced Monday that all 10,000 people who chose to stay in the Keys might have to be evacuated until basic services come back.
A steep toll
Irma will not be as deadly as the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which killed 485 people — including 257 military veterans building a highway bridge to open the Upper Keys to the flow of tourists enriching Key West.
The storm might not even have been as bad as it was just 90 miles away, in Cuba, where 10 people died in Cat 5 winds.
But the aftermath on the Keys was surreal.
In Key West, two giant ficus trees uprooted, nearly killing a woman staying at a home on William Street. It also leveled a next-door home once owned by the beloved poet Shel Silverstein, who wrote the children's book "The Giving Tree," and died in Key West in 1999.
The damage was worse north, where older, unstable structures were obliterated.
An RV park at Bahia Honda had dozens of mobile homes flipped over. It looked as though a giant hand had knocked them over with one slap. Several trailer parks in the Middle Keys, including the Ocean Breeze trailer park in Marathon, a small parcel of land with about 30 mobile homes, were completely wiped out.
At Ocean Breeze, some homes were thrown 30 yards away from their foundation, spilling out the photo frames, toys and bicycles inside. Water marks on the trailers showed the storm surge rose chest-high. "It just wiped everything out," said Renee Gee, 49, a domestic-abuse survivor who moved to the Keys with her autistic son to start over. "It's really sad. I was happy with my little $10,000 trailer."
Senterfitt, taking a breather after finally returning to the Marathon emergency operations center, said the storm underscores Monroe County's progress in enforcing building codes. "A lot of older homes were destroyed, while the news houses seem to have fared much better," he said. "This may end up being a lesson" in building.
Even so, on Sunday evening, Senterfitt said he expected a "humanitarian crisis" as the United States Air Force and Air National Guard mounted relief missions to the Keys. Among the personnel flying into Florida Keys Marathon Airport, in the Upper Keys, were what Senterfitt called "disaster mortuary teams."
The U.S. military is deploying to aid survivors.
The Navy aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln is sailing near Key West, ready to provide emergency services, according to the U.S. Northern Command, which oversees military relief operations. Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopters were flying rescue missions into hard-to-reach parts of Monroe County. An Army C130 plane had landed in Marathon, carrying satellite dishes to improve communication with first responders.
Law enforcement and government agencies in the Keys are having serious problems talking with each other since the storm, according to Miami-Dade Police spokesman Alvaro Zabaleta. That's making it hard to assess the damage and figure out when to let people back in, he said.
While the cleanup continues, those who remain wonder at the damage.
"That boat weighs more than 10,000 pounds," said Mike Umberg, pointing to a 26-footer sitting on a neighbor's front porch in Little Torch Key, 30 miles from Key West. "It's a big boat to be thrown around."
Winds sheered the tops straight off palms trees.
"That's something you see in Iwo Jima," said Umberg, who sheltered at Sugar Loaf High School during the storm. Unlike other Florida counties, Monroe didn't staff its shelters with law enforcement and support workers. The shelters, the county's four public schools, were refuges of last resort.
But for some in the Keys, the only shelter they would ever seek was their own home.
In Boot Key Harbor, Jesse Merritt — who has lived on boats for 42 years — refused to leave his 32-foot sailboat, the Moonstruck. About 4:45 a.m. Sunday, he was doing just fine. Then, another boat got loose. Six-foot waves sent it crashing into his mooring.
"You could hear the grinding of the fiberglass and the howling of the wind," Merritt said.
The line tethering his boat eventually snapped, and he crashed into a sanctuary of mangroves to survive the rest of the storm. As the storm went on, several other stray vessels joined him.
Normal life isn't coming back anytime soon.
"The Florida Keys is going to need a lot of help," said U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican whose district includes the Keys.
The day after the storm, most of the Keys was without power, and only the Upper Keys, from the four-island Village of Islamorada north, had running water, said Kirk Zuelch, executive director of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, the public utility that pumps fresh water to the Keys from Florida City on the mainland.
"The pressure drops before Marathon. By the time it gets to Ramrod Key, there's no pressure in the system," Zuelch said on a Monday morning conference call for emergency planners.
The utility released a blast of water Monday morning to Key West to help pressurize the pipeline, but it is not potable and must be boiled before drinking.
Still, residents in Key West said, it could have been worse. Even the famous colony of six-toed cats that lives at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West survived the storm, all 54 of them.
Back in South Dade, the need to return home was overpowering. Some evacuees waiting at the entrance to the Keys were now so low on fuel they feared not making it back to shelters in Miami-Dade. Many said they might not choose to leave their homes next time around.
Marc Serota fled his home in Tavernier with his wife and two small children Friday
"This is why people don't leave," said Serota, after waiting hours in the heat Monday morning to return. "They're afraid they won't be able to get back and check on their homes."
"As long as I have shutters and a generator," he said, for a Category 4 or less, "I wouldn't leave again.