BIG PINE KEY, Fla. – One of the strongest and costliest on record, Hurricane Irma in 2017 caused over $50 million in damage.
It made landfall in the Florida Key as a Category 4 storm and devastated communities like The Avenues in Big Pine Key.
The working-class community that helps keep the restaurants, marinas and hotels running is still recovering nearly four years later.
Homes were just wiped away after The Avenues was pummelled by an 8-foot storm surge and 130 mph winds.
“They just didn’t withstand the storm,” said Lindsey Anderson, executive director of the Florida Keys Community Land Trust. “After the storm, not only will the homes gone, but a lot of jobs were gone too.”
Her organization was founded after Irma to create income-based, affordable housing for those who keep the Keys up and running.
“They’re the people who maintain all the vacation homes, who work at the local shops, restaurants,” Anderson said. “But those are also the lowest-paying jobs. So finding affordable housing in the Keys is really difficult.”
Rebuilding in the aftermath of Irma was difficult too. Rebuilding your mobile home is not allowed by code.
“Monroe County requires that if you build a single-family home, you have to have a special permit because of their rate of growth ordinance,” Anderson said.
The Florida Keys Community Land Trust trust has already built multiple homes that are up to code and over 11 feet above sea level. Dozens more homes will be built on a former RV park.
“We’re going to be rebuilding 26 homes here, plus two lots for community space,” Anderson said. “It’s neighbors helping neighbors.”
Resident Brian Vest is one of those neighbors helping neighbors.
“There was a lot of anger at the time, at the hurricane and life, because ... you know, the trash still piled on the streets,” he said. “It was pretty tough times, so the way you get that anger out is to do something good.”
What started out as a neighborhood cleanup effort has grown into the Conch Republic Marine Army.
Vest says he has gone out every day picking up items ranging from mattresses to propane tanks to hot tubs, from the area’s waterways and mangroves.
And what started out as just a few volunteers boomed.
Even still, at the pace they’re going, it will take a decade for the cleanup efforts to finish.
Monroe County has contracted Adventure Environmental to clean canals of debris left from Irma.
Local 10 News caught up with them in Key Largo, one of many stops they’ll be making as they work their way down to Key West.
After scanning hundreds of canals for debris, the crew was sent in to go through each one.
“It just shows what goes in the water really takes a long time to disappear,” one of the crewmembers said. “It’s getting harder to find this stuff because of all this growth on it. ... It’s surprising at the amount of debris we’re still pulling out.”
It’s an effort Vest will be helping with too.
“So the way I approached this is if you just keep nibbling,” he said. “You eat an elephant, one bite at a time. You climb Mount Everest one step at a time. You can clean the shorelines one foot at a time. You just don’t stop. You just keep nibbling.”
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