KEY WEST, Fla. (TNS) — As the waves and winds began easing Sunday, residents of Old Town emerged not knowing exactly what to expect from the most powerful hurricane to strike the Florida Keys in more than a half century.
But all in all, many in Key West seemed relieved that the damage from a Category 4 Irma was not much, much worse. "It's not as bad as we thought," said Robert Phillips. "It's just trees and foliage and cars."
That wasn't the case across the rest of the 110-mile island chain. In the Middle and Upper Keys — on the more savage right side of Irma's 130-mph winds — the damage and storm surge appeared far more severe. Monroe County emergency managers hinted that they feared there could be fatalities. Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt, calling the destruction a looming "humanitarian crisis," said a huge airborne relief mission mounted by the Air Force and Air National Guard was already in the works.
Among the services coming to the Keys are "disaster mortuary teams," he told a conference call on Sunday afternoon.
Some damage images posted to social media were startling. On Grouper Lane in Key Largo, vehicles were almost entirely under water. The storm knocked out power Keys-wide and damaged some of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority's transmission lines, which could cripple the flow of fresh water to the island chain. There were also reports of serious flooding and sunken boats in the Marathon area.
The center of Irma's eye crossed Cudjoe Key, a mostly residential island perhaps best known as home to the portly Air Force blimp dubbed Fat Albert. It's only about 20 miles east of Key West, but that small margin seems to have kept a town renowned for charming gingerbread architecture, fabulous sunsets and quirky characters on the less severe side of Irma.
There was plenty of damage in Key West: Surge swamped streets to hip level near Mallory Square, wrecked boats near Galleon Marina and toppled ficus trees onto cars. The huge trees also smashed parts of two houses on Williams Street — one, neighbors said, belonging to the late, great children's book author Shel Silverstein.
But it was nothing like the destruction farther up the Overseas Highway, the road leading back to the mainland. On Big Pine Key, which had been on the right side of the eye that typically unleashes the strongest winds, the road was littered with debris: coconuts, palm fronds and five pleasure boats thrown from a nearby dry dock onto the highway. Nearby, a surf board hung in the trees as if delicately placed there.
On Summerland Key, which fell under Irma's eyewall, Yeorgo Kapriris rode out the storm as it beat his home to pieces. By early afternoon, he emerged to go check on his boat even as the rain continued pounding, and described a harrowing time in Irma's eye.
"About 5 o'clock in the morning when it really started to blow, the trees started snapping and we saw roofs getting ripped off," he said. "The water came up about 5 feet. We lost our van. We lost everything."
Down the road, George Ramos rode out the winds inside a large Atlantic-side home, where he works as a caretaker.
"It sounded like war," Ramos said. "It sounded like explosives."
But the scariest part was the sea rushing in and engulfing the first-floor garage and hallway. By Sunday afternoon, the water had receded but not before depositing all manner of sea debris: a jet ski yanked from a pier, fish in the pool, and sea grass entangled in the spokes of bicycles in the garage.
And then there was the small boat embedded in the mangroves of the backyard.
"I have no idea who the boat belongs to," Ramos said.
Monroe County emergency managers will quickly begin formal damage assessments, but there will be complications of clearing debris and checking highway and road signals. In a release issued Sunday, they also said they want to make sure it is safe to travel. At Snake Creek in Islamorada, on the dirty side of the storm, the bridge was not out but the county wants it inspected by the Florida Department of Transportation to ensure it is safe for vehicle traffic.
The county also warned that surrounding waters could be navigation hazards because of scattered sunken debris and boats and uprooted buoys and markers.
In Key West, even while rain continued in the afternoon, Monroe County crews armed with chainsaws and backhoes began driving down to clear the debris-littered road. Residents who had been either brave or foolhardy enough to ride out a major hurricane — the strongest to hit the Keys since Donna in 1960 — began returning home from shelters or friends' homes.
Over a dozen Key West friends and associates — some with children, most with pets — had taken shelter in the Studios of Key West, a three-story art gallery in a former Scottish Rite Temple built of massive concrete. Edward Muska, 25, was part of the group that spent nearly 36 relatively undramatic hours inside — playing cards, watching movies, drinking beer — while Irma howled and rattled outside.
By Sunday evening, most everyone left the makeshift shelter. Even though Irma was still scattering tree limbs and drenching the island, everyone felt as though Key West had been spared the worst.
Nobody had electricity. But the gallery hadn't lost a window. And their homes were mostly intact.
All but Muska. When he visited a nearby marina, the other boats docked there were fine — except for his houseboat, which had sunk. He lost most of his possessions, save his passport and personal documents.
"It wasn't nice to see. I had tears in my eyes," Muska said. "It's pretty devastating."