When Hurricane Donna passed over the Florida Keys seven weeks ago in a terrifying welter of wind and water, it left behind a population stunned, cut off from the mainland, almost helpless. Across the nation, too, it left hundreds of thousands of Americans who knew and loved the Keys wondering whether this year, or even next, they would be able to visit, fish and play there again. This is the question Photographer Richard Meek and I set out to answer last week, for until now the full story of what happened on that thin green line of islands during the night of September 9 has not been told, nor has anyone attempted to assess the damage done and the prospects for reconstruction.
Donna was the worst hurricane to strike the Keys in a quarter century. Here is what the storm did:
•From Rock Harbor to Marathon, over a stretch of 50 miles, the destruction in many areas was as complete as though the islands had been under an air and artillery barrage.
•The Overseas Highway linking the islands to the mainland was broken in five places, with one bridge ripped out entirely and the approaches to others washed away.
•Driven by winds which blew as high as 180 mph, and possibly even 200, successive walls of water up to 12 feet high surged inland, gutting hotels and larger buildings, tearing motel cottages from their foundations, carrying docks, trailers, houseboats and other forms of habitation out into the bays and inlets.
•In the town of Marathon, 80% of all buildings suffered major damage.
•In Islamorada, little more than concrete and stone foundations remained to testify that one of the Keys' most popular fishing centers once stood there.
•Telephone and telegraph lines, power lines and water supplies were disrupted along the entire 50-mile stretch of major damage.
It would seem from this that the Keys would be a long time coming back, and that visitors this winter might seek their favorite vacation spots in vain. But the big news in the Keys today is no longer what Donna did. The big news is how the islanders are winning a race against time in an inspiring work of reconstruction. Many of the facilities the Keys traditionally have offered will be ready in time for the coming season.
The spirit of reconstruction that animates the Keys is felt the moment one leaves the mainland on the Overseas Highway. Moving westward are trucks laden with building materials. Cars and station wagons roll along carrying lumber inside and on top. The trucks of roofing contractors drag their tar tanks behind them. Prime movers hauling storm-battered trailers eastward pass shiny new trailers being moved in to house people while they rebuild their homes. Telephone repairmen roost on new poles like birds. Machines claw at the earth to bury long-line cables. At numerous points along the route smoke columns rise into the bright, tropic sky to mark places where the wreckage and debris of the mighty storm is being collected and burned.
Now and in the weeks immediately to come the banging of hammers will be the dominant sound of the Keys. Already, despite many obstacles, most of the less badly damaged motels are in operation. By the first of the year visitors should find at least 80% of the tourist housing facilities open for business. This is an approximation, for some of the owners don't know themselves whether they can make it. In many instances the rate of rebuilding will depend on insurance adjustments. Most policies specified that the insurance companies were responsible for wind damage but not for that caused by rising waters, and arguments over this point have caused considerable bitterness. Property owners are seeking to prove as much wind damage as possible while insurance adjusters are trying to establish wave damage. How quickly many people can rebuild depends on the outcome of these struggles.
Fishing guides who run offshore charter boats were among the first to resume functioning. Most of these guides are veterans wise in the ways of hurricanes. When it became evident that Donna would hit the Keys, they took their boats to previously determined moorings deep in the mangroves. These primitive trees with their tangled roots form a natural barrier against the highest winds. A few boats were sunk or washed up on distant islands in Florida Bay, but even these have been retrieved. By the time the season gets under way almost 100% of the charter-boat men will be operating.
Docks, of course, were washed away, but these are being rebuilt. Meanwhile, the boats are using substitute facilities. The bonefishing guides lost some of their boats and motors, but these, being smaller, are more easily replaced. The Islamorada Guides Association, which includes 42 members and 30 offshore boats, expects to be in full-scale operation by December 1. The Marathon Guides Association, with 44 members and 30 boats, has the same target date.
Our survey began near Rock Harbor, on Key Largo. There we found Tom Cadenhead, who operates the Mandalay Fishing Camp, repairing a boat engine. He wore an old Marine Corps hat and a wide grin.
"I'm luckier than most," he said. "I had only about $30,000 damage."
He indicated the new concrete dock already built to replace the wooden one that had washed away. Then he led the way into the nearby woods, which were a clutter of hurricane debris. As he walked he pointed out his ruined refrigerators and the remains of the wooden dock. At one point he exclaimed, "There's my wife's desk. We've been looking all over for that." Fishing around in a pile of papers beside the smashed desk, he pulled out a couple of checkbooks.
Back at the dock we boarded a skiff and Cadenhead steered for Hurricane Creek, where many boats had ridden out the storm in the mangroves. He showed us where each boat had been tied up in the thick tangle.
"It was a strange-looking boatyard but it saved our boats," he said. "We're operating now, and by December 1 we'll be back 100%."
At Tavernier, Captain Cliff Carpenter sat on his porch and told how he had saved his boat, the Shor-Clif, by hiding her in the mangroves off Tavernier Creek. "I had her tied all over with 700 feet of three-quarter nylon line," he said. Captain Carpenter lost his dock but is working from another until he gets his rebuilt.
Captain Eugene Lowe was supervising the rebuilding of his dock on the ocean side at Tavernier. His original dock had been carried all the way to Tavernier Creek, a mile away. Captain Lowe, who has been a fishing guide for 32 years, is also the official weather observer for the town. He said the great hurricane of 1935 brought faster winds and higher water but that Donna lasted longer.
"My anemometer only registers up to 120 miles per hour," he said. "The needle went up against the peg at that point and stayed against the peg for four hours."
On the other side of Tavernier, Herbert Alley, owner of the Key Haven Motel, suffered little damage, since his place was on the lee side of the storm. But both he and Captain Carpenter reported considerable injury to the beautiful coral reefs, which are now included in an offshore preserve. On visits to the reefs Alley found that the fish populations had shifted. In some places there were greater fish concentrations, and in others they were fewer than before. He felt they would soon become stabilized according to food supply.
At the Theater of the Sea, where all kinds of marine creatures are normally kept in a series of pools, the porpoises now cavort around a house blown into their big lagoon by the hurricane. Phelps McKenney, the proprietor, lost only one of his five porpoises. It swam away during the high water but the others elected to stay at home. Windy, his big California sea lion, wound up at Marathon, 40 miles away. There his deep barking in the night frightened people already suffering from hurricane jitters. Finally, when daylight came, a man located Windy and fed him some fish. Someone else recognized him, and sent for McKenney, who found him none the worse for his unexpected journey.
Windy is back home now, and apparently glad of it. "He's as free as he can be because my fences are gone," said McKenney. "He could go out into the ocean and start back to California where he came from. But he prefers to stay." McKenney, meanwhile, is rebuilding his curio shop and restaurant, which will be ready soon. Then comes the slower task of collecting live marine specimens to replace those that escaped. "I'm shooting for December 15," he said. "I hope I make it."
In Upper Matecumbe, Mrs. Helene Baur and Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Sandrey escorted us through the wreckage of their unique establishment, the Chesapeake. Before Donna, the Chesapeake included a large restaurant decorated with numberless antiques and curios. There were motel units and a large houseboat that had been set up on shore as a home for the owners. The storm cleared out the restaurant, wrecked the motel cottages, uprooted the houseboat and almost sent it out to sea again. Sandrey and five other men took refuge in an ornamental tower at a corner of the restaurant. For days afterward he and his wife and Mrs. Baur conducted treasure hunts into the mangroves to retrieve curiosa ranging from ebony elephants to a stuffed jaguar which was found in a treetop. One of its ears had been shot off by military guards sent in to protect the islanders from looting and other dangers.
Now carpenters are already at work rebuilding the restaurant, which, it is hoped, will be in operation by January. The motel units and houseboat will be dealt with later. Mrs. Baur said that when the restaurant is rebuilt they will have a "Hurricane Alley" in which battered antiques, salvaged from the mangroves, will be on display. They will be presided over by Donna, a female figure with wildly blowing hair and a dress made of hurricane flags.
Farther down the line, Dick Williams, a popular Islamorada fishing guide, showed the wreckage of his Coral Cove resort. Williams had spent 15 years building up this establishment, with its motel units, docks, boats and swimming pool. He was simply wiped out by the hurricane. Only concrete foundations mark the sites of some of his buildings.
"It will take longer for me to build back because I have to start from scratch," he said. "I have to have architects design new buildings and that takes time. We'll put up a temporary dock and I will be fishing by the first week in November. I'm aiming at having new buildings ready by February 1."
Standing by his television set which lay rusting in the sand, Williams told us what had happened in the famous bonefish flats of the area. Actually, the storm did little damage to the flats, but it left some unexpected hazards. Guides will have to beware of sunken refrigerators and other submerged obstacles in the shallow water.
Islamorada suffered a heavier battering than either Tavernier or Marathon because it was right on the edge of the hurricane's eye, with the wind coming directly from the ocean. The Olney Inn, known for its beautiful grove of coconut palms, was hit by a 12-foot storm wave, and water rose inside the building to a height of five and a half feet. Other structures on the property were washed from their foundations or split in half. A big houseboat, which had been sunk in the ground and used as a rental unit, came to rest 1,000 feet away. With dead and toppled palms strewn everywhere, the once lovely grove now had a shell-torn look. Shelton Stone, the caretaker, said 608 of these trees, representing most of the grove, had been lost. He doubted that the inn could be made ready for this season.
At Marathon, which was on the other side of the hurricane's eye, the wind came from the bay side. This made a lot of difference to Key Colony Beach, a multimillion-dollar development facing the ocean. E. P. Sadowski, the developer, greeted us so cheerfully that, by contrast with less fortunate resort owners, he almost seemed jubilant. His area had no wave damage at all, although the wind tore roofs off buildings, knocked down walls and did other damage. But no water was involved, so his insurance claims were not disputed.
Scores of workmen were putting back roofs and rebuilding interiors. Sadowski has settled on a Hawaiian motif, which will feature a huge golden goddess with smoke coming out of her eyes. "The Hawaiian motif is very popular these days," Sadowski said. The entire resort, including restaurant, convention hall, golf course and beach will be ready by December 15.
At Hall's Camp in Marathon, the picture was not as rosy. There Gene and Betty Florimont admitted they were having trouble with the insurance adjusters, and the rate at which they could rebuild would be determined by the settlement. They were going ahead with dock repairs because docks are not insurable. Their cottages, which had been shoved into odd positions, would have to wait.
"We're coming back the hard way but we're coming back," Mrs. Florimont said. She was happy to add that they had saved their pet pelican. They took him with them up to Miami to escape the storm, and then flew him back home in an air taxi.
Near by, at the Davis Docks, a place with 42 cottages and three-quarters of a mile of dock space utilized by charter boats and visiting yachts, contracts were just being let to rebuild the docks. Mrs. Iva Storm Davis, the spry, elderly owner, said the docks would be finished in six weeks. "That dock there, believe it or not," she said, pointing, "went through my cocktail bar."
Beyond Marathon the Keys began to take on their normal appearance. The mangroves were in full leaf, there were no piles of debris and only an occasional toppled tree. The city of Key West, at the end of the 108-mile string of islands, was on the perimeter of the storm and escaped with minor damage. The big problem there was a water shortage. A pipe line carries fresh water down the length of the Keys, and it was washed out in many places. Repairs were made swiftly, however, and Key West was able to come to the aid of the stricken middle Keys. Visitors this winter will find the famous old city looking about as usual.
A piano teacher's loss
Reconstruction of tourist and travel facilities is only one aspect of the recovery problem facing the people of the Keys. The rebuilding of private homes will be a slower process. Many houses were destroyed, and their former occupants are living in a makeshift fashion with friends or in trailers set up beside the ruins. One piano teacher lost 80% of her pupils because their pianos washed away.
Only preliminary surveys have been made to determine the effect of the hurricane on wildlife. At the Cowpens Keys, the small islands in Florida Bay where normally some 75 pairs of roseate spoonbills nest during the winter, only 32 birds have returned so far. A hasty check of the Everglades National Park indicated that 40% of the great white herons were missing from the park area.
The hurricane winds were so strong that they blew the leaves off the trees. For a couple of weeks after Donna passed, only bare, brown limbs rose above the scene, giving it an even more dismal air. But now, bright, young leaves are sprouting fast, and as they do the hope of the people continues to rise. The trees are green again, the sky has the deep blue of the tropics, and the calm waters reach out from the Keys in all shades of aquamarine. There are 764 kinds of fish to be caught in those waters, and where you have fish and boats you will have fishermen. Soon they will be rolling down the Overseas Highway by the thousands, and when they come the Keys will be ready for them.
UNEXPECTED NEW FEATURE of Tavernier's Theater of the Sea is house that was washed into porpoise pool. It has proved so popular it will be kept there.
OFFSHORE GUIDE Cliff Carpenter tied his boat in the mangrove swamps. "She looked like a boat in a spider web," he said, "but she rode it out all right."
RESORT OWNERS Alexander Sandrey (left), Mrs. Helene Baur and Mrs. Sandrey spent days recovering antiques and curios of celebrated inn, the Chesapeake.
BONEFISH GUIDE Dick Williams is cheerful in the face of disaster. "My place was built according to the building code," he says, "but it went anyway."
CARETAKER Shelton Stone of Olney Inn in Islamorada took the loss of the inn's famous palm grove hard. "I planted those trees myself in 1938," he said.
MARINA OWNER Mrs. Iva Storm Davis said of storm: "I only cried three times. I don't think it was an act of God. God doesn't treat His people that bad."
FISHING CAMP OWNERS Gene and Belly Florimont never considered abandoning Keys. "Marathon," they say of their town, "is a disease, and none of us have lost the disease."