Despite the Devastation

One year after Hurricane Irma hit the Lower Keys, Michael Adno reports on the resilience of Conchs living in the storm’s aftermath.

By Michael Adno for The South of the South(Available in print here)

“The wind came back with triple fury and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

—Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God," 1937

On Ramrod Key, the owners of the beloved Square Grouper restaurant, Rob and Lynn Kramarz, were deep into the recovery effort when we arrived at their house just after Hurricane Irma lashed the Lower Keys. The water line was etched well above the windowsill, and everyone in our crew, which had grown to about a dozen bodies, set to tearing out furniture soaked from the surge.

In short order, the porch brimmed with couches, stools, tables, boxes, and cabinets, appliances, mattresses, and restaurant supplies. The yard hid underneath cushions and carpets left to dry. Their pool looked more like a septic tank, with a dark, unsettling film on the surface. The stench was acrid and downright awful, its own unique subset of olfactory experience.

With no connection whatsoever to their belongings nor their lives, opening a drawer of letters and photographs and watching the ocean stream out still gutted me. I asked Lynn if I should set these aside, and she paused for a minute, before telling me to drag it to the road.

On the road, the crew gathered around a cooler of water to try to find relief from the sun, and Rob, dripping in sweat, was visibly affected.

He started, “Well, above and beyond.” Then his voice caught, “You guys.” He paused again looking down trying to find the words.

What would have taken weeks to clear was reduced to mere hours with this number of people. We all stood quiet, with the sun beaming down – the air eerily still. Before the moment could turn somber, a neighbor strolled up and asked with urgency, “Anybody got some tobacco?”

We all broke into laughter, and some of us fumbled to find him a cigarette, but Rob beat us to it. “Back right pocket, on the table,” he said, pointing towards the pile of what once filled their home.

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If you look through the record of storms, spanning Columbus’s encounter with a tropical storm near Hispaniola in 1449 or the hurricane that sank 73 of 74 ships in a Spanish fleet in 1559 or the 1928 storm that killed more than 3,000 people along the rim of Lake Okeechobee, you find storms are bound to a past we sometimes forget.

Zora Neale Hurston built “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” on the foundation of the 1928 storm in Florida, but they have histories elsewhere too. In Montserrat, the same storm nearly led to famine when it scrubbed crops from the island. In Puerto Rico, it killed 300 people. In each place, it wove itself into our DNA.

In the song, “Louisiana 1927”, Randy Newman crooned about a flood, “Some people got lost in the flood. Some people got away alright.” Later, Aaron Neville would cover the seminal song in 1991 followed by John Boutte in 2011, making it his own with “Twelve feet of water in the streets of the Lower Ninth.” Louisiana, they sang, they’re trying to wash us away. Boutte told a crowd on Frenchmen Street, “Don’t let them.”

The deadliest was a Caribbean storm with no name killed more than 22,000 people in 1780. And 120 years later, a voracious hurricane took 10,000 lives in Galveston, Texas.

In 1950, the first Atlantic hurricane was named. They called him Able. Later, meteorologists would retire names of deadly storms. Connie was retired after she tore a path of devastation from the U.S. Virgin Islands to New England in 1955. Gloria was no longer used after she etched across New York in 1985. Andrew was laid to bed after it leveled Homestead in 1992. Charley, 2004. Katina, 2005. Sandy, 2012. Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate, 2017.

In each place, a record of the loss remains. In New Orleans, it’s the FEMA markers still spray-painted on homes throughout the city. In Rockaway Beach, it’s a groundswell of gentrification. In 1935, when World War I veterans were hired to build the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys to connect Miami to Key West, the U.S. Weather Bureau made a grave mistake. On Labor Day, a storm was meant to slip through the Florida Straits, but on that morning, no evacuation was ordered. By nightfall, trains were sent to pull all the workers out of the Keys, but it was too late. The storm picked up the train and mangled it like a piece of balsa wood. Those who survived watched as the dead were burned along the train tracks. The New York Times, who wrongly suggested there was no negligence involved, ran the headline, “Death Laid to Act of God.”

And today when you drive down the 120 miles of the Overseas Highway from Florida City to Key West, broken segments of the former railroad run alongside the road as a silent monument to how hurricanes became part of our heritage.

Irma was part of that, too.

The 2017 hurricane season was the costliest on record in the United States, causing an estimated $265 billion in damages, as a trifecta of hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria – crashed into U.S. shores in succession.

On August 25, Hurricane Harvey dumped 33 trillion gallons of water over central Texas, just as Irma was winding up off Cape Verde. On September 5, Irma became the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin by the National Hurricane Center. That night and the following morning, four days before Irma’s eye spun over mile marker 22, the hurricane decimated Barbuda. It wiped 95 percent of the structures off the island. Barbuda’s prime minister described the damage as though a bomb had gone off. Another Category 4 storm, Jose, narrowly missed Barbuda a matter of days later.

On September 10, Irma reached the Keys as a Category 4 storm. On September 20, 2017, Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. The storm killed at least 3,000 people, left the island in the dark and deprived its economy of $43 billion.

 
 
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