FLORIDA KEYS — Shortly after 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Kim Ackerman closed the gates to the pastel-painted Shell World, a kitschy Key Largo gift shop near the gateway to the Keys.
She'd seen three customers that day.
But nearby, a sign of hope gleamed in LED letters over the highway: "U.S. 1 Keys is open to Key West."
Hurricane Irma interrupted the party in paradise, but only for a time. On Sunday – three weeks after the storm thrashed the chain of islands, killing 14 and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage — the Keys will officially reopen to tourists.
"People are mentally drained, and everybody is so stressed out," Ackerman said. "But everybody is wanting to get back to work, pay the bills."
"Well . . . "
Tourism is a $2.7 billion industry in the Keys, according to Monroe County estimates, as vital here as water is to a conch. It accounts for 60 percent of every dollar spent and employs more than half of the workforce.
Many of those workers returned from evacuation to find their homes damaged or gone. For most, the recovery has just begun. Paychecks are sorely needed. So are hot meals and a place to sleep.
Irma leveled entire neighborhoods, and the remnants are scattered everywhere — except U.S. 1. It took hundreds of hours to clear the highway.
Visitors will soon drive from the Florida mainland to Key West, the iconic westernmost getaway. Businesses along those 113 miles are desperate for them to arrive.
Are islanders ready? Do they have a choice?
Kombucha in one hand, two backpacks in the other, Tabitha Perryman navigated her three young children through the halls of Key Largo School. She dropped them off, one-by-one, into a teacher's care with a kiss and a strong hug, the third goodbye since the storm.
For a moment, she felt a world she knew. Downed trees snapped and crunched as a claw dropped them into a dump truck across the highway.
Home was a refugee camp. Perryman's house had weathered the storm. Some of her husband's workers on harder-hit islands hadn't been as lucky. After Irma, the Perrymans opened their doors.
They managed with family-style dinners for 20 and makeshift beds on the floor. By sun up each day, her husband and his crew piled into heavy machinery to haul away the mess across the county. They worked into the evening.
School gave her the time to figure out the next meal, the next chore, the next way to help someone. Some parents said it was too soon to start back up. They needed more time for cleanup, for comforting. Not Perryman.
"Stop complaining," she said. "We need this."
The Port of Key West welcomed the first cruise ship since Irma on Sept. 24. The soft reopening of that island came a day before classes resumed at Key Largo School, 104 miles away. In the Lower Keys, schools didn't open until days later. Some still aren't ready.
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"It's a tough thing," Perryman said. "You want the island to make money, but you also don't want to load the place up with traffic when workers are trying to move trees and help people. Either way, somebody is going to be pissed off."
• • •
Key Largo greeted visitors with promises of key lime pie and a picturesque respite. Islamorada braced them for a harsher reality ahead.
The frontage road south of U.S. 1 has become a graveyard. Hundreds of rusty refrigerators, washing machines and dryers line the road. It smells like decomposing remains mixed with rotten eggs, a marriage of old food and algae blooms.
The Islamorada Visitors Center is across the street.
Of the 1,200 hotel rooms on this island, only 100 are usable. Marinas and docks have been nearly obliterated, threatening Islamorada's well-earned reputation as the sport fishing capital of the world.
Days after Irma's pass through Florida, Gov. Rick Scott challenged the Keys to reopen by Oct. 1. Locals initially said Oct. 20 was more realistic. On a recent conference call of business representatives and local officials from across the islands, there were sharp divisions, said Judy Hull, executive director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce.
Key West, the crown of the islands, was up and running and ready. Other areas worried that islanders would have to choose between their lives and their livelihoods.
Ultimately, it came down to this: How could they even stop people from coming?
"Without a barricade at Florida City, it was already open," Hull said.
She hopes that a steady trickle of visitors will feed money to businesses while affording time for recovery. October is usually one of the slower months.
There is progress every day, she said.
Linda Ellis at the Islamorada Visitors Center points to a royal poinciana tree stripped of its foliage by Irma. Buds are starting to appear.
"We're the only ones who suffer," said Ellis, a 47-year resident of the Keys. "Mother Nature moves on."
• • •
Signs along U.S. 1 in order of appearance:
"Open!! Welcome back. #Keystrong." "After a hurricane there's a rainbow." "You can't drown a conch." "The bitching stops here."' "Do not cut tree." "Beach closed." "Trump + Scott = A1+" "Free beer with haircut." "Screw You Irma." "You loot, we shoot." "Baby needs dry goods & more." "We are Marathon Strong." "Danger: Poisonous snakes." "Wanted: Hurricane damaged houses." "From Texas, will shoot." "Welcome to Wasteland." "Lower Keys strong." "Free hotdogs. Eat in only. Please enjoy. And chili." "We're Open!"
• • •
Roz Fahey fussed over the wicker furniture she pulled from the water outside the remains of her house in Duck Key. After wondering out loud whether it could be salvaged, whether it was worth opening the hurricane shutters, whether it was a mistake to move from Nebraska, she added, almost as an afterthought:
"The worst part is I have breast cancer."
Her next treatment is Thursday. She doesn't know if her hospital will be open.
"That's the price you pay for living in paradise," Fahey said, choking back tears that still come too easy.
Duck Key is 10 miles east of Marathon, where gas stations are wrecked, dozens of boats in a marina are piled on top of each other and a makeshift dump — with trees and personal belongings — towers two stories high.
Hundreds of rescue crews from across the country occupy a tent city at the Florida Keys Marathon International Airport. They sleep on cots and shower in trailers. The mission has shifted from rescue to recovery. With no end in sight.
Even after tourists are welcomed back, a curfew will remain in place for the region just east of Key West, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
"You're welcome to come, but be mindful this place has debris everywhere," said Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark. "It's not the same place by any means."
Tom Moore hopes they come. On Wednesday, he pulled the hurricane windows off a fallen wall at his house and plotted how he would replace it on the same spot in Duck Key.
He imagines the next wave of tourists will be lured by the same views and sunsets that inspired him and his wife to retire in the Keys.
"The more the better," he said.
• • •
In a Big Pine neighborhood, a man in the cab of a tractor picking up the side of a trailer home offered directions.
"Go one block up," he yelled.
Can it get any worse?
Locals call the community north of U.S. 1 the Avenues, and what's there now are ruins.
The bathroom, a fridge and a crib are all that remained upright in Jordan Vega's trailer. Her husband, Yoao, a commercial fisherman, couldn't guess when he might work again.
Nearly a quarter of all homes in the Keys were destroyed, largely in Big Pine and Marathon. No one there escaped unscathed.
Many of the displaced are living in donated hotel rooms. But those rooms will be needed again once tourists arrive.
Finding affordable housing for the working class — who make up many of the Big Pine and Marathon residents — is a top priority, Clark said.
Jimmy Stefan had four walls and little else, but he considered himself lucky. A flattened pile of rubble replaced what was once seven neighboring homes.
Sweeping the debris on Thursday, Stefan was upbeat. He planned to order T-shirts that said: "Tough times don't last, tough people do" and turn a pile of weathered horseshoes that survived Irma into art.
He paused, though, when he saw a picture of his daughter in his neighbor's wreckage. It was a baby photo, faded and saltwater-stained.
"That's tough," he said.
• • •
A mountain of trash along the road:
Sponge Bob hamper. WD-40. Paddle boat. Betty Crocker cookbook. Ab roller. Tetra Tech employee log. Flag-themed patio tablecloth. Cactus. Thirteen pieces of a puzzle, connected. Six pack of Budweiser. DeWALT power drill. Mongoose bike. Reusable Publix bag. Pink remote control car. 555 address number. Pieces of a white picket fence. Bowling ball. Outdoor Santa sleigh lights display. Gator-orange wrapping paper. Five dollar Monopoly bill. Inflatable pool. Garden hose extension. Snorkel mask. Fitness Gear workout bench. Dog chew ball, blue. Business cards for Ernest S. Barber, Jr., United States Corps of Cadets. Kitchen sink.
• • •
Max Stumpf nearly aborted a planned trip to Key West after watching video of Irma.
Instead, the German tourist found himself enjoying a sunset, and the quiet, at the southernmost point on the continental U.S., typically a hot spot.
The next morning, Chris Carter pulled up his truck and tractor to snap a photo there, with his dog, Dakota, before heading to Marathon to work on the cleanup for the next three months.
He blocked the road. There was no one to complain.
Crews cleared the areas most trafficked by tourists as soon as it was safe. Cruise passengers who avoided the mess along U.S. 1 would hardly realize a storm ever came through, if they stuck to places on the travel brochure.
A local wildlife shelter even recovered all the birds it set free as the hurricane approached.
"If I'm up and running, then my dry cleaning is up and running, the guy who cleans my buses will be up and running, places I eat," said Rick Haskins, whose rental properties housed dozens of displaced first-responders after the storm. Haskins' family has lived in the Keys for eight generations.
"I don't know how other places respond to a storm," he said. "We've seen this before. We know what works is getting back to business."
All that's missing now are the people.
Jorge Norris played bongos to an empty square during Wednesday's Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square. A bachelor party of 15 walked down Duval Street and more than doubled the crowd at any bar they stepped into. Sloppy Joe's, the place Ernest Hemingway made famous, advertises a 4 a.m. closing time but shut its doors before midnight.
September is typically slow. But not like this, and businesses are losing thousands of dollars of revenue a day.
Kimball Ingram's bar, Aqua, opened the day after Irma passed. It ran on generators, and anyone going by could use a landline to check in with loved ones.
The drag show was back on as usual for Thursday night. Ingram didn't expect a crowd. But he hoped locals would find comfort in the routine.
"We'll get going again," Ingram said. "It's the end of the road. Everybody always comes to the end of the road."
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.