Hurricane Irma and the Spirit of Key West

The other day, I sat in a local restaurant eating a Key Lime torte and thinking about how Key West owes the Cuban coastline a debt of gratitude for slowing down Hurricane Irma. As unkind as she was to Florida, an unimpeded Irma might have reduced Key West to a denuded stump of coral. Just look at what happened to Barbuda. Still, even if a worst-case scenario had occurred, the locals would still be there right after the storm drinking warm Jäger and beer and comparing Irma to Wilma, the hurricane that hit the Keys in 2005. My friend Mike was on the island for Wilma, and he saw a coconut pierce a concrete wall like a cannonball. He owns two properties there, and during that storm he had to move his family from his single-story home to his two-story home so no one would drown. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about Irma.

Key West’s physical beauty draws tourists like a magnet, but the locals, or Conchs, give the island heart. The Conchs are people who have always been there or who have broken free from the centripetal pull of the Lower 48. In one sense, they live in a different country of their own creation, one that epitomizes the best of American culture. They stubbornly defend and propagate a lifestyle dedicated to freedom of thought, expression, and action. Down there, you’re welcome to be a guy who lives on a boat with his parrot (see picture above), or a gay Cuban existential nudist, or a dispossessed redneck, or a Hemingway look-alike, or a gorgeous silver-plated living statue, or a talented writer or painter who actually makes a decent living at your craft, or an oceanographer doing your best to save the coral reefs–whatever makes you happy. Do what you want, so long as you abide by some basic social guidelines and don’t make too much of a nuisance of yourself along the way. It’s a small island, and no matter where you live, reputations stick. 

Hurricanes can knock down palm trees, but they’ll never damage Key West’s indomitable spirit. Ghosts live everywhere on the island. Some remain as hidden as possible while others beg for your attention. One day, it took me an hour and a half to find the bungalow where Tennessee Williams had once lived, even after I had been given the address. The concierge at La Concha pointed out the spot on the map where I would find the house, but the map showed only the more prominent streets. He spoke gracefully, but Williams lived on a tiny side street not on the map. When I did reach the general area, not one of the locals knew of Williams or where he had lived, except for one distracted bike rider, who was at least familiar with the street itself. With this advice, I finally found Williams’ home, which is now privately owned and anything but a tourist destination, albeit a demure place where one might certainly be able to write in quiet. I hope Irma didn’t damage it too much. I’ll find out when I visit in January. The same secrets and uncertainties apply to the properties built by people who understood the sea. Courtyards hide behind the facades of mostly two-story houses that line every street, serving as private indulgences waiting for new ghosts to emerge, the ones who join us at the table or peer discreetly at us from behind a second-floor shutter.

Storms like Irma make me worry about what’s happening to the aquatic world surrounding the island. The sea, which is at the very edge of the Bermuda Triangle, is a telescope through which the right imagination can revisit but never fully understand our origins. The surface is a prism beneath the moody sky, whether smooth, choppy, pale green, azure, or muddy brown, as it was just after Irma hit. Below is prehistoric, a place to be a cautious guest since the fish and coral are fragile and curious. Brightly tailored creatures shadow your every move, examining you as the outsider you will always be. But even before Irma hit the Keys, the coral reefs were bleaching into pale underwater skeletons, due partly to increased water temperatures resulting from climate change. Higher carbon levels in the atmosphere are mostly to blame. Intrusive human activities on the water have done their fair share of harm as well. All of this means far fewer fish. Local fishermen know this. Many tourists don’t, or they prefer not to think of it. Should we kill the fish en masse, we kill our relatives, and then maybe ourselves. Then we’ll be dealing with a different community of ghosts. How has Irma affected this scenario?

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking of Key West more often these days. Somewhere between the morning shower and evening news, I try to understand the place on my own terms, and hurricanes make our concerns all the more intense and poignant. Key West is a dream actualized. The community’s polynomial nature means that even Bubbas (outsiders) adapt soon enough to a different code where anyone of age can carry alcohol in plastic cups along the streets because somehow it doesn’t make sense to impose various state laws in the only Caribbean location in the U.S., just 90 miles from Cuba but 154 miles from Miami. In Key West, it’s easy to forget the day of the week, and it might take you three days to get stamps at the post office, at least once they recover enough to welcome us again with open arms. I wish I could forget the day of the week more often.

Photo By: Photographs by Eric Stephenson