“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 a while.”
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 though by a giant hairdryer.
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 and plans to open all of its exhibits on 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.
“Thanks to the cruise ships, we had people knocking on the door at 8:30 this morning, and we don’t usually open till 10,” David Cast, the manager of the Halloween Megastore on Duval Street, said on a recent Saturday. The store expects another influx of customers as the town prepares for the annual Fantasy Fest, a raucous, 10-day bacchanal that will go ahead as planned as of Oct. 20 and, if the past is any guide, cheerfully stretch the bounds of questionable taste as far as they can go. Organizers promise “madcap merriment” at exotic parties, masquerade balls and costume contests at which participants wear body paint and little else.
“Nothing like a little hurricane to add an extra challenge to planning a 10-day, citywide festival,” said Nadene Grossman Orr, who is in her first year as Fantasy Fest’s director and who noted that at no point after the storm did she consider canceling the festival. “I imagined we would get back on our feet quickly and have a reason to celebrate. Getting the tourists back is imperative. When we rise, we’ll bring back the rest of the Keys with us.”
Other yearly events scheduled to take place regardless of the thumping delivered by Irma are the Goombay Festival, a street party in Key West’s Bahama Village that celebrates the town’s Caribbean roots, on Oct. 20 to 21; Marathon’s Stone Crab Eating Contest, also on Oct. 21; and the Humphrey Bogart Film Festival on Key Largo, on Oct. 18 to 22.
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.”