When we discovered that Grassy Key RV Park and Resort in the Florida Keys had reopened after Hurricane Irma, we were determined to come back. We spent a week here last December and fell in love with this campground and the entire Marathon area.
While most buildings around here are still standing, and businesses are reopening all the time, many homes and businesses in the Middle and Lower Keys have been severely damaged. The campground we're staying in experienced no structural damage, but homes and business a few feet away on the other side of the Overseas Highway were not so lucky.
Many people have lost their homes or businesses altogether, either because they were destroyed by the hurricane or because they had to be demolished subsequently. As you drive through the Marathon area along the Overseas Highway, you can see the occasional empty dirt lot, stretching from the highway to the sea, where homes surrounded by lush vegetation once stood.
Mike from Florida Keys Mobile RV Service, who fitted a new gas regulator on our trailer, told us he'd been working flat out since the hurricane servicing the FEMA travel trailers that house some homeless residents in Big Pine Key, an area just south of us that was devastated by Irma. He has also been helping customers who are living in RVs in their own yards until their homes can be rebuilt.
Some public places are also badly affected. The boardwalk at Sombrero Beach has been reduced to a pile of pink rubble and most of the beach is closed. Further south of us, Bahia Honda State Park lost much of its vegetation during the hurricane and its two campgrounds are still closed after suffering major damage.
All of this is heartbreaking to see, but not completely unexpected. We’ve been surprised, though, by the huge mountains of debris from the hurricane that still line many parts of the Overseas Highway in the Middle and Lower Keys: building rubble, ruined furniture, uprooted vegetation, white goods and even a few boats, trailers and RVs.
Our campground manager told us that although Florida’s Department of Transportation cleared the highway of hurricane debris after the storm, they stopped at the end of October. Monroe County’s contractors are busy cleaning the county roads, so new mountains of debris have been growing along the Overseas Highway as residents start to repair their homes and businesses. We saw that some of this debris has blown onto the beaches and into the mangroves.
Hopefully this will change soon. It’s now illegal to dump more hurricane debris along the Overseas Highway, and according to Monroe County Emergency Management’s Keys Recovery website, the Florida Department of Transportation has finally agreed to send between 25 and 50 trucks to do a final clean up of the highway. They plan to clear it all by mid January.
Meanwhile, Monroe County says its contractors are removing 12,000 cubic yards of debris a day from county roads. We also saw that local residents are taking matters into their own hands and participating in community efforts to clear up the mess.
When the canals of the Lower and Middle Keys will also be cleared of debris is unclear. According to Monroe County, federal and state agencies have already pulled over 1500 wrecked boats out of Florida Keys waterways. We saw some of those at Sombrero Country Club in Marathon, part of which has been turned into a makeshift boat graveyard.
But locals who live in Sombrero Beach told us that some of the canals in their area still contained submerged boats, cars and even RVs, as well as a large amount of other trash. For now, a natural disaster that has hurt local residents so badly is also a terrible environmental hazard, but all the residents we've talked to here embody the Keys Strong slogan that has emerged in the wake of the storm. They're determined to restore this beautiful community, and we're sure they will.
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.