It was 11:58 p.m. on Tuesday, September 5th, 2017 when my husband and I put the last shutter on our house and loaded our two boys and puppy in the car. With heavy hearts and eyes full of tears, we said “see ya later” to our tree house by the sea. We had done everything we could possibly do to keep our family and home safe, and now all we could do was pray that our little slice of paradise would be waiting for us when we returned.
By the time we evacuated to Atlanta, we were hopeful that the big bad wolf they called “Irma” would head east and spare the Florida Keys of her vicious wrath. But our hope was cut-short once we realized Irma was spiraling down the unthinkable path: her eye was heading directly to our beloved islands. She was destined to destroy everything we adored and lived for, and there was absolutely nothing that we could do about it.
That feeling of hopelessness haunted me as I watched our islands get hammered with over 140 mph gusts of wind and water. Sitting there powerless as you watch your home be destroyed is one of the most gut-wrenching experiences one ever should endure, and sadly I know it’s a feeling that many of you echo. Three agonizing days later, we finally became aware of the full extent of the damage. My first look of the destruction left me in shock: houses and businesses ripped to splinters, trees stripped naked and scattered across the sea and land, intercoastal highways buried with debris, sand deposited as high as second-story windows- our enchanting paradise was unrecognizable, the damage extended beyond our imagination. How would we ever rebuild? The storm was devastating, the aftermath was heart shattering.
Yet sometimes out of pandemonium blooms true aspiration. Inspired by watching my community come together, I felt an overwhelming urge to help my neighbors rebuild our island home. I joined together with my husband and a small group of family and friends, and using our own resources and physical strengths, we helped over two dozen families clear their homes of limbs and litter. By the time the county opened the Lower Keys, we had a group of twelve people- some old friends, some strangers we had met in the clean-up- come down to help us assess the damage of our home.
There are no words to describe how happy we were to find our treehouse by the sea still standing, and even more grateful to witness the power of working together for a common goal. The motivation to provide relief to our fellow Conchs and rejuvenate our island gave us the sense of purpose we were so desperately searching for. For now, we are no longer powerless.
But us locals are not the only ones who are eager to reconstruct our islands. The Florida Keys hold a special place in many people’s hearts for a good reason; the atmosphere and topography are truly one of a kind and harbor the perfect playground for fishing, diving, and other aquatic adventures. People from all over the state have united to bring much needed relief supplies and manpower to our paradise. As Kim Sports-Lofley, a volunteer with Florida Keys Wagon Train, expresses: “We love it in the Florida Keys and we want to do our part. We are honored and grateful to be a part of the cleanup process.”
The Florida Keys Wagon Train is a group of volunteers from Central Florida who started out by helping their neighbors in their surrounding areas. United by their love for the Florida Keys and their desire to pay it forward to their fellow man, a group of over twenty-five people caravanned down to provide relief to the middle and lower keys. One volunteer even offered her home as a hub for all the donated supplies where families in need could come take what they need.
The progress that has been made since Hurricane Irma first made landfall in the Florida Keys is remarkable. Piles of debris are slowly vanishing and new growth is starting to freckle the trees that line our horizon. But there is still so much to be done, and we could use all the help we can get. For those who can’t offer physical assistance, the best way to help us in the recovery of the Florida Keys is to come down and support the local businesses. Our economy is driven by people like you, and we need you to continue to enjoy all of the wonder that our beautiful islands offer. Most importantly, reject and protest against companies such as Forbes that assert that “the Keys should not be rebuilt.”
Together we will rebuild the Keys. We are, after all, one human family.