SUMMERLAND KEY, Fla. – Huge waves crashed down on this tropical paradise, pounding the white sands of Summerland Key with brute fury. Then came bomb-blast winds as Hurricane Irma slammed ashore.
For survivors John Hartman and Mae Skiver, the worst was yet to come as they sheltered in a friend’s house, utterly at the mercy of the monster storm now pounding this slender island chain.
The two 27-year-olds both lived in trailers in neighboring Cudjoe Key in this palm-studded archipelago that juts about 120 miles away from South Florida across warm waters.
They and other survivors told the Associated Press what they experienced in Irma’s monstrous grip.
Hartman and Skiverhow said they watched 10-foot waves churning as Irma approached. As Irma pounded the Keys, even the second floor of their friend’s home began to flood. Then the ceiling caved in. Possibly there were tornados, too. The sound was so loud, Hartman says, “it hurt your eardrums.”
Like others in this idyllic spot for snorkeling, boating, fishing and laid-back nonchalance, they didn’t believe the eye would pass right over them. But it did.
“Nobody did beforehand but then by the time we (knew) it was too late,” Skiver said. Afterward, they emerged to find the homes on either side of their friend’s house had their roofs torn off.
After Irma barreled up the Florida peninsula, the two returned to their own trailer homes. Surprisingly, both trailers were relatively unscathed – unlike many others left crumpled and splintered.
Now, like other survivors, they grapple with big questions like how to put their lives back together.
“We don’t have food and water in abundance and all of that stuff’s just gonna take a long time,” Skiver said.
On Wednesday, the two were out foraging. Their destination: a school where military meals-ready-to-eat were being handed out.
And Skiver had a word of advice for those who left ahead of Irma: “Don’t come back. At least (not) for a long time.”
Dan Border, 67, rode his bike from his home to a school on Sugarloaf Key where Florida National Guard soldiers were handing out MREs, and water Wednesday. He remained haunted by seeing Irma’s eye pass right over his home.
“It was dead calm in the eye for what seemed like over an hour,” he said.
Border had a working generator but was running out of fuel. He siphoned some out of a jet ski and hoped the soldiers would have some gas. They didn’t.
“Not being able to communicate with my family is the worst part. They saw the news and everyone saying it was total destruction and we’re thinking `Dad’s dead.’ They lived with that for days.” Finally a wildlife officer loaned him a satellite phone and he made contact with the outside world.
Further toward the mainland on Marathon Key, a grocery store had opened under police guard by Tuesday, but residents could only buy 20 items each, and no cigarettes or alcohol. So said 70-year-old retiree Elaine Yaquinto.
Her home with new storm shutters on the bay side of Marathon survived, but she had no electricity or running water.
Still there was a trickle of cold water – good enough for a shower.
“It made me feel like normal,” she said.
Yaquinto sat in her Cadillac across from the Marathon airport listening to recovery updates on a local radio station powered by generator. She said she had yet to see any state or federal agencies or utility companies working on the ground.
Irma roared in Sunday with 130 mph winds, a major hurricane. Rooftops of luxurious multistory waterfront homes along this stretch of the Keys now look as if they’d been peeled away by can openers. Every power pole has been snapped. Boats like the Keys Please now rest on dry land, heaved ashore by Irma. Condominums are battered.
Nevertheless, some local officials say the damage doesn’t appear as bad as one preliminary estimate from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that a quarter of all homes in the Keys were destroyed and nearly all the rest were heavily damaged.
“Things look real damaged from the air, but when you clear the trees and all the debris, it’s not much damage to the houses,” said Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers. Her county covers the entire Keys.
In Key West, the site of the Southernmost Point Marker facing the sea was scarred by waves and wind stirred up by Irma.
A few people rode bicycles down Duval Street on Wednesday, but only two bars were open. The city was empty of the tourists who flock here in good times to party.
Angel Majors said she appreciated the quiet, despite the power outage at her Key West home. Besides, she was getting to eat like a tourist: One bar offered all-you-can-eat stone crabs and lobster for $10 on Tuesday night, and Back Bar offered stone crabs for free Wednesday.
“Us locals love it. We love our tourists, but it’s kind of refreshing,” she said. Majors said the neighbors clearing streets for each other and bars offering free alcohol and food were “true conchs.”