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Keys are slowly returning to life

Many businesses remain closed for repairs.

Roughly a month after Hurricane Irma whipped its ferocious winds across the Florida Keys, a pearl-like strand of subtropical islands with an ecosystem unique in North America, much of the once pristine landscape remains littered with the wreckage the storm left behind.

Tourism, normally a $1.6 billion-a-year industry that employs about half the Keys’ workforce, took a battering of its own, with dozens of hotels, restaurants, dive shops, fishing charters and other businesses closed for repairs or reconstruction. Some have reopened or are about to, a process hindered by the likelihood that many evacuated employees, their homes damaged or destroyed, will choose not to return to the Keys.

“It beat the hell out of us,” said Barbara Weingardt, an artist and 20-year resident of the Keys. The open-air market on Islamorada, where Weingardt sells her color-splashed paintings of Florida wildlife, had to close for three weeks after the hurricane barreled through Sept. 10. “We’re just glad we’re up and running. We’re a pretty tenacious bunch, and we know how to deal with this stuff, but this was the worst I’ve seen.”

Some of that resilience comes through in hand-painted signs posted along the Overseas Highway: “Can’t Drown a Conch,” says one in Key Largo, using the term by which some Keys residents are known. “After a Hurricane Comes a Rainbow,” says another sign nearby.

The reality is infinitely harsher, even weeks after the storm. On both sides of the road that connects the Keys, which reopened to regular traffic Oct. 1, large piles of debris — palm trees, pieces of houses, vehicles and boats, soaked couches and mattresses, mangled refrigerators and kitchen cabinets — still await removal by the rumbling excavators, backhoes and trucks that have become ubiquitous in the area. In some marinas, lopsided, half-sunk cabin cruisers and sailboats stick out of the shallow water, their fate left to insurance adjusters and salvagers.

“Visually, it’s going to be a different experience for people,” said Andy Newman, the spokesman for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. “We’re not perfect. It’s going to be awhile.”

On the ocean side of the islands that bore the brunt of Irma’s onslaught — Big Pine Key, Marathon and Ramrod Key among them — houses, apartment buildings and motels lie in ruins. All around them, fronds on palm trees point away from the wind, frozen in place as if by a giant hair dryer.

Some hotels, including the Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key and Cheeca Lodge & Spa on Islamorada, both badly damaged, may not be back in business for months. Others are scrambling to reopen after cleaning up the mess and making repairs.

On the positive side, electrical power is back in most places, while the Overseas Highway and its 42 bridges are open all the way to Key West, the island chain’s crown jewel and the primary draw for most of the people who visit the Keys — 3.8 million last year. Although pummeled by winds and left flooded in some parts, the town was largely spared the kind of damage seen only a few miles to the northeast, and all but three of its hotels — the Inn at Key West, the Bayside Inn & Suites and the Parrot Key Hotel & Resort — have reopened.

“It’s really lucky for everybody that Key West fared fairly well because if Key West had been destroyed, we would have had a way bigger issue,” said Jeremy Hauwelaert, the marketing director for Islamorada’s Theater of the Sea, where visitors can swim with dolphins and which, while damaged, had a partial reopening earlier this month. It plans to open all of its exhibits Nov.15. Without Key West, he suggested, the islands southwest of Miami would not attract remotely as many visitors as they normally do.

Cruise ships began returning to Key West on Sept. 24, much to the relief of business owners who had been forced to close before the storm and, once up and running again, saw very few customers. Now, there is a stream of them on the three or four days a week that the vessels are in town.

But some businesses on Duval Street, Key West’s main thoroughfare, remain closed because of flood damage. And a handful do not plan to reopen at all: One, a large Express clothing store at Duval and Fleming streets, announced its closure with a sign on the door that invited people to “feel free to continue shopping Express on our website.”

No one knows when — or if — the area will return to its formerly bountiful economy. At Mangia Mangia on Key West’s Southard Street, just three of the restaurant’s 30 tables were occupied on a recent Saturday evening. “Normally we’d be 75 percent filled,” said Elaine Spencer, a longtime waitress. “This has affected us big-time.”

That same night at Willie T’s Bar & Restaurant on Duval Street, Eric Kotowski, who has tended bar there for seven years, said the crowd was “probably less than half” the usual size for a Saturday. “This is kind of slow, to be honest,” he said. “We’d usually be slammed. But this is a little easier — we don’t have the staff for a bigger crowd.”

On the front of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, a large sign hung from a second-floor balcony: “The Museum Weathered Well. The Cats are Happy and Safe. We are Happy to See You.” For a week after it reopened, the museum offered a “Hurricane Irma Special” admission price of $10 for adults, down from the usual $14.

In the crowd of visitors, thinner than was typical for a Sunday at the author’s home, a visitor from Boston, Robyn Bissette, 42, said she had driven down through the Keys from Miami and was “shocked” at the amount of destruction she saw.

“But I kept going,” she said. “I remembered going to New Orleans after Katrina, and everyone was so thankful that I could give them my tourism dollars. That’s happening here, too.”

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