In Florida Keys,uneven damage in wake of Irma

KEY WEST, Fla. -- Barbara Snead and Megan Rife sat on the seawall of Mallory Square here on a recent Monday, taking in the ocean view as the sun began to set on an unseasonably cool evening.

"I'm very surprised how great of a shape this place is in," said Snead, who had traveled to the Southernmost City from Richmond, Va., for the annual Fantasy Fest. "They got it all cleaned up so nicely."

Indeed, less than two months after Hurricane Irma roared across the Florida Keys, the island chain's most popular destination looks little worse for wear. (Click here for an enlarged PDF option of the map at right.)

Approximately 90% of Key West's hotel rooms are already back on line, according to Andy Newman, who heads publicity for the Florida Keys tourism council. Tourists are lining up for sunset sailings, and the cafes along Duval Street are selling their usual assortment of cocktails to thirsty patrons.

Fantasy Fest, which is the largest annual party in this town known for parties, went off well this year by all accounts. And while crowds weren't quite as large as usual, some 87% of Key West's hotel rooms were booked for the Fantasy Fest parade weekend, with rates averaging about $390 per night, according to hotel data research firm STR.

But if Key West already exudes a sense of normalcy, it's a different story in some other parts of the Keys. As I drove the 100 miles from Key Largo to Key West last week, I encountered a tale of two worlds; more than two, actually.


The tourism council estimates that 75% of rooms throughout the Keys are on line.

Key Largo, at the start of the drive, is in good shape, for the most part. The lone major hotel closure is the Hilton Key Largo Resort, which is closed indefinitely but was already under renovation when Irma hit.

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John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo's most famous attraction, is open despite having sustained flooding to its concessions office and gift shop. Dive, snorkel and glass-bottom boat excursions from Pennekamp were expected to resume as soon as this past weekend. 

Farther down the Keys, Islamorada looks largely OK. Theater of the Sea, one of its major attractions, is operating in a limited capacity until a full reopening on Nov. 15, while local restaurants, state parks and diving and fishing charters are up and running.

Still, Islamorada is in for a tough tourist season because a disproportionate number of its hotels sit hard against the Atlantic shore. It was the Atlantic side of the Florida Keys that was suffocated by Irma's storm surge. As a result, all along the Overseas Highway, resorts that sit on the westerly Florida Bay/Gulf of Mexico side tend to be open and fully operational, while those on the oceanside are often closed or operating amid renovations.

A fence blocks entrance to the Postcard Inn in Islamorada; a reopening date hasn't been announced.
A fence blocks entrance to the Postcard Inn in Islamorada; a reopening date hasn't been announced. Photo Credit: Robert Silk

Just 31% of Islamorada's 1,275 rooms were open as of last week. Among the closed hotels are the Cheeca Lodge, the Moorings Village, Amara Cay, the Postcard Inn, Pelican Cove, La Siesta Resort and the Guy Harvey Outpost Islander Resort. 

Some of those hotels, including Amara Cay, expect to open this month, while others will be shut through the winter and beyond. Islamorada Chamber of Commerce executive director Judy Hull said 50% to 60% of the town's rooms should be open by January.

Passing through Marathon and the Middle Keys, signs of Irma's wrath become more obvious. Debris is largely cleared from the main roadway, but there's still a lot of cleanup to do. There are also occasional patches of real destruction. At one trailer park, for example, lot after lot sits empty behind stacks of refuse along the highway.

Marathon's Sombrero Beach remains closed, but most other Middle Keys attractions are open. Florida Keys Aquarium Encounter expects to reopen in the middle of this month, according to the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce.

The Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key will be closed at least until spring.
The Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key will be closed at least until spring. Photo Credit: Robert Silk

Approximately 50% of the hotel rooms in Marathon are closed, according to the tourism council. Among the closures is the Hawks Cay Resort on nearby Duck Key, which doesn't plan to fully reopen until late next summer, Newman said. On Key Colony Beach, hotels lining the Atlantic are closed, including the Glunz Ocean Beach Hotel & Resort. 

It's the Lower Keys, however, that took the full brunt of Irma. The storm made its first U.S. landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on Cudjoe Key.

Driving southwest beyond the Seven Mile Bridge, debris clogs the median of Bahia Honda Key. From the roadway Monday, I saw the eroded beach of Bahia Honda State Park, believed by many to have been the nicest beach in the Keys. Still, the park reopened last Thursday.

Many businesses have reopened on Big Pine, but the town exudes disarray. Utility crews are still everywhere. Piles of debris line commercial and residential roadways. On one edge of Big Pine, the former units of the Old Wooden Bridge Guest Cottages and Marina remain raised off their foundations, the ripped-out front walls exposing destroyed interiors.

Inside the Chamber of Commerce building the atmosphere seemed downcast as executive director Susan Miller told me that nearly every hotel and lodge from Bahia Honda Key until Stock Island, on the edge of Key West, is closed. Notable among them is the posh Little Palm Island Resort offshore from Little Torch Key. No reopening date has been announced.

The pool at the Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort in Marathon last week. The resort is on the Gulf side of the Keys, where the storm surge wasn’t as significant.
The pool at the Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort in Marathon last week. The resort is on the Gulf side of the Keys, where the storm surge wasn’t as significant. Photo Credit: Robert Silk

An exception is Parmer's Resort, on Little Torch, which has begun to open rooms. And Lower Keys tourism got a boost last week with the partial reopening of the National Key Deer Refuge. 

Miller stressed that like all of the Keys, recreational activities are still available in the Big Pine area. Fishing charters, for example, are operating and eager for clients.

"There will be things to do but not places to stay," Miller said.

The heavily damaged zone continues beyond Big Pine for approximately 20 miles, then dissipates. Seemingly miraculously, during the last 10 to 15 miles of the drive into Key West, vistas of debris give way to scenes of mangrove-dotted waterways.

It's a tribute to cleanup efforts, no doubt, but also to how much weaker the left side of Irma was than the dirtier right side that struck most of the Keys.

Yet, even here, the Parrot Key Resort is closed until Dec. 1. The Key West Bayside Inn & Suites and the Inn at Key West are closed, as well.