After Hurricane Irma

Three months after the hurricane, fly-fishing guides wrestle with what the future of their industry might look like in the wake of the storm

By Michael Adno for Outside (Available online here)

Nine days after Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Lower Keys on September 10, staking out the region as one of the most vulnerable to climate change in America, I drove like hell to Will Benson’s house on Lower Sugarloaf to beat the dusk curfew still in place. Passing through Key Largo on my way down, I noted that restaurants were already open—hotels, too. People walking alongside the towering piles of debris waved when I passed. Farther down the road, I saw a sign that read, “You can’t drown a Conch.”

In the Conch Republic—the region of islands extending from Key Largo down to Key West—a certain kind of resilience seems omnipresent, quintessentially Southern yet distinct. Hurricanes aren’t exactly foreign around here, and most Conchs, as residents call themselves, will start rattling off differences between Georges (1998) and Wilma (2005). But unlike previous storms, most residents evacuated for Irma, especially those with families. When I first visited Benson, his wife and two kids were still camped out in Costa Rica, waiting to return. “We’ve been through this before, and we’ll go through it again,” he told me. “We learn a bit every time. It’s part of living here.”

But with the storm crimping the principal economy of tourism, you’d expect some concern for the region’s short- and long-term prospects. If hurricane seasons like this one are the new normal—and research suggests they are—how will the Keys survive?

In Monroe County, 54 percent of its workforce relies on tourism, which is a $2.7 billion industry here. Of that, recreational fishing contributes $741 million annually, according to a study published by the Bonefish Tarpon Trust in 2012, with the flats fishery totaling $465 million alone. According to the county, Irma destroyed 675 structures, 465 of them on Big Pine Key alone. Following that assessment, it deemed more than 10,000 structures affected. And in light of the storm, Monroe County Mayor George Neugent hazarded that they might lose 15 percent of the population due to relocation.

Benson, a fly-fishing guide for the past 18 years who grew up on Sugarloaf, sat in his truck with a big grin when I pulled into the driveway—his house still standing. “I’m going to Fishcamp for dinner. You want to go?” he asked. Fishcamp is actually his parents’ place. The last time I’d seen him had been July, when we celebrated Benson being crowned grand champion guide at the Del Brown Permit tournament. Now, two months later, we caught up as the last arcs of light fell away that night. At dinner, the living room was humming with people preparing cocktails and telling stories after a long day. Benson introduced me to a crew from outdoor gear brand Costa Del Mar, along with some of his clients who’d flown down to help. We ate rice, beans, chicken, and steak on paper plates, drank, and laughed. I looked out over the reticulated chain of islets and basins falling off into the Gulf, thinking the place hadn’t lost any of its charm. But also, what would follow?

Read the entire feature and see all the photographs online at Outside. 5 copy.jpg

Michael Adno for Outside