ISLAMORADA, FLA. - Treading carefully across a bed of wobbly debris, Florida Key residents who escaped Hurricane Irma’s 209-kilometer winds came home under a breezeless sky. Yet, the air was thick with anxiety.
A coconut fell in the distance, its thud capturing the emptiness of the flattened surroundings and resonating hollowly.
“Work hard, and this is what you get,” said Bob Galbavy, still in shock. He blinked repeatedly, attempting to maintain composure.
“I never thought it would be this bad, but,” he turned, “God. This is bad.”
A Ft. Lauderdale-based mechanic, Galbavy’s Islamorada home was his second — a getaway-turned ground zero, after last weekend’s Category 4 hurricane pummeled through his property and thousands more, resulting in seven deaths in the surrounding county alone.
But other locals — among them, day laborers — had only one home in the first place. Except for a few lucky ones, they were left with nothing: no water, electricity, sewage... The list goes on.
Billy Quinn's grandfather built his two-bedroom trailer 56 years ago, and passed it down through successive generations of firefighters — a jewel with a prime view of calm waters, along the continental United States’ southernmost land.
Over the years, the Keys has seen its share of hurricane weather. But Quinn’s two-bedroom “Seabreeze” trailer, at mile marker 84, had never fallen apart — until now, when not “a stitch of wood” remained connected to his trailer’s iron-steel frame.
What was left of the structure shifted five meters inland.
“I've been broke down and built back up so many times in life that, you know, it just seems like a normal thing to me now,” Quinn said, solemnly, but sincerely. “It’s just, right away, thinking how to build back up, how to get it back to normal. And we are counting on FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency].”
For Quinn, there was never a homecoming because he hadn’t left in the first place. Instead of evacuating or sheltering in place, he chose to bear the winds at his neighbor’s home, equipped with a cinder-block hurricane room.
Had Quinn instead stayed in his mobile home, he acknowledges, he “would've been decimated with it.”
Stained eyes, filled with hope
Scattered across the Keys are locals like Quinn, who chose to ignore evacuation orders and ride out the storm — either to assist others, or because they believed they could withstand Irma’s unpredictable force.
“It was just a loud roar. Ungodly,” recounted Dixie Crystal Mathews, a North Carolina-native bartender in Florida’s Keys, who stayed. “It sounded like a train going by, that just kept coming and coming and coming...”
Mathews’ reason for not evacuating was the former: in case either her boyfriend or “brothers and sisters” needed help.
At one point, she watched as palms and scraps flew beside her home — a three-story structure that trembled in the middle of the storm’s night. Once the strongest winds had passed, she came out and began crying, then immediately rushed to knock on her neighbors’ doors. Everyone was safe.
Today, Mathews found herself among a growing crew, all readying for the long build ahead.
She was quick to call on everyone to watch the raising of the American flag — atop a broken dock, but well above the sea.
Mathews stepped to the back, and wiped away thick tears.
“We are going to get through this,” she assured us. “That old glory, I love her. That’s the most beautiful flag in the world.
“Now we know it’s going to be okay.”
José Pernalete in Florida contributed to this report