Misery, uncertainty after Irma hits Florida idyll

September 13, 2017 by Leila Macor
Patty Purdo returned to a scene of desolation at her home in a trailer park in Islamorada, which was badly hit when Hurricane Irma rammed the Florida Keys

After Hurricane Irma reduced her home on a Florida Keys trailer park to rubble, Patty Purdo fears it's now only a matter of time before property developers complete her misery.

"We are afraid that they are going to bulldoze this thing and build a high rise condo and rich people's homes, but we don't have any other place to go," said the waitress on Tuesday as she surveyed what was left of her home of the last 35 years.

"We don't want to leave, we want to stay. It is what it is," she added before breaking down in tears. "We don't have much left."

The Florida Keys, a ribbon of islands on the southern tip of the United States, has long been a magnet for millionaires and film stars drawn to its warm waters and sunsets.

Islamorada, situated in the middle of the archipelago, counts the actor Gene Hackman among its residents and draws thousands of well-heeled tourists over the summer months.

But when Irma hurtled into the Keys as a Category Four hurricane on Saturday night, the biggest losers were not the owners of luxury condos but the likes of Purdo.

Much of Islamorada's 6,000-strong local population's livelihoods are dependent on tourism and live in flimsy trailers, a world away from the Keys' glamorous image.

Hurricane Irma's fierce winds brought sailboats ashore in Islamorada, in the Florida Keys

'We're not the rich people'

"We are the people who serve you coffee. I'm the one that serves you dinner and lunch and coffee in the morning," said the 55-year-old Purdo.

"We're not the rich people here."

Purdo, who rode out the storm in a friend's brick-built house, was distraught when she returned to her home and found its doors were blocked by debris.

She was only able to get into her property by carving a hole with a chainsaw and was then confronted by a blanket of seaweed that smothered her possessions.

"This was my porch," she said with a nervous laugh, pointing at a tangle of wreckage next to her home.

Inside, the floor is covered in a film of sludge that has soiled everything from clothes to books.

Residents estimate that Irma destroyed three-quarters of homes at the Seabreeze Trailer Park in Islamorada, in the Florida Keys

The park, called Seabreeze, commands glorious views of the Atlantic Ocean and it's not hard to imagine how developers might be tempted to erect high-end vacation properties or hotels rather than resurrect the more basic homes.

Residents estimated that around 75 percent of the 106 trailers in the park had been largely destroyed by the hurricane winds or subsequent storm surges.

Nearby businesses have also taken a pounding from Irma such as the Habanos restaurant which was not only coated in algae but also stank of rotten food after the electricity went down.

"The ceiling collapsed in the dining area, in the kitchen we have a lot of water damage," said the proprietor Marilyn Ramos as she spoke to an AFP reporter.

"We haven't been able to assess the whole thing yet. There's been damage in every area, some more than others. So it's devastating for us but we're a strong community, we're going to get this going soon."

Like Purdo, Ramos knows she faces an uncertain future if tourists don't make a swift return but she cannot afford to just wait for them to come back.

"It's going to take some time to get it back to what it was used to be. I want to be hopeful and say weeks, but it can be months. This is our livelihood."

Explore further: Quarter of houses in Florida Keys destroyed: US official

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