Image: Zak Bennett

‘It’s All Very Grim’: Hurricane Irma Leaves Behind a Broken Paradise in the Florida Keys

Residents returned to their devastated homes this week after a mandatory evacuation.

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Sep 19 2017, 4:02pm

Image: Zak Bennett

Hurricane Irma, the most powerful storm recorded in the region's history, tore through the Caribbean Islands and crashed into the Florida Keys about 10 days ago. Now, the affected areas are trying to rebuild in the face of more summer storms.

Residents of the Florida Keys, a cluster of islands south of Miami, had mostly evacuated the area through the storm, and were finally allowed to return to their homes this week. I drove to the Keys to see how residents were coping with the aftermath of Irma, and found them helping each other sort through the damage as they waited for government aid.

Juliet Herrada and Thomas Castañeda got married on August 19th and returned from their honeymoon to their destroyed home in Marathon.

The couple stands in front of their neighborhood damage. Image: Zak Bennett

"When we were on our honeymoon, I told her (Juliet) to eat all she could because when we get back there won't be any food," said Thomas Castañeda. "All our stuff is gone. Our kids are staying with our parents. First we want to see aid. Our house has been destroyed and there's nobody. The only thing we are happy about is that we are alive."

Steve Gibbs, 73, has been living in Key Largo for approximately 50 years. He estimated $30,000 of damage to his house.

Gibbs at his home. Image: Zak Bennett

"My wife has been crying a lot this week. She keeps saying we have lost everything. There's an old saying around here. If you're gonna live in paradise, once in awhile you have to pay the price," he said. "Mr. Trump said he would drain the swamp, so I would love if he would come down here and drain the swamp smell from my house."

Carmen, 62, and James Cdan, 53, have been living in the Keys for 35 years.

The couple in front of neighborhood damage. Image Zak Bennett

"We've been here through Andrew and all the storms in between," Cdan told me. "I think we did good in regards to our house damage. I used 3M duct tape on all the doors and we only got 1 inch of water in our house, my neighbor got three feet. Just a little seaweed and water came through our toilet, but that's it."

Richard Whitehead, 61, moved to the Florida Keys when he was nine years old and said he'd never been through a storm this bad.

Whitehead at his home. Image: Zak Bennett

"It's never been so bad, and I've been here ever since. It was brutal. Look how it blew down this coconut tree on my house," Whitehead said. "It's not supposed to be there. We need to start over again."

Guadalupe González, of Mexico, has been living in Marathon for 20 years.

Gonzalez in her home. Image: Zachary Bennett

"We don't know what we are going to do. I want to stay here, but we will have to see if that's possible," she said. "But I feel good because my family is okay, but now we don't have anywhere to live. We will try to rescue to the little bit that we have, what can we do. This is the strongest storm I've felt in the 20 years I've been here."

Pablo Gonzalez Franco, 63, of Marathon, said he's been sleeping outside for six days.

Franco surveying his neighborhood after returning. Image: Zak Bennett

"Everything was terrible, we can't work, we couldn't work, we don't have money. We are just accepting donations right now," he said. "No one has visited me, the police just came to look at the place and left. They aren't interested in this—they just pass us. But, I have a lot of faith. I think everything will be ok here. But, we need help."

Victorino Segura, 39, of México, lives in La Quince, in Marathon.

Segura in front of his home in the trailer park. Image: Zak Bennett

"I feel good and bad. I feel bad because everything is destroyed. I feel good because lots of local people are giving us supplies and help," he said. "FEMA and officials have not come here, they are just keeping law and order on the main roads."

Genoveva Santana and Rafael Munero live in Marathon.

Santana and Munero in their home. Image: Zak Bennett

"It's all very grim. It's very difficult. I am already fixing things. If the government can't help us it's ok, we will fix it. But, we are in the critical zone of this entire storm, so help should be here," Munero said.

Rafaela Acosta, 54, has been living in Marathon since the 1980s.

Acosta waits for help near her home. Image: Zak Bennett

"I am completely distressed. I feel awful for many reasons. I am going to stay here because it is all I have. All of my kitchen appliances are broken, and I'll take them outside tomorrow. Everything is wet, but I will stay here tonight because I have a small generator and can run my fan. I was trying to call FEMA but my phone is no longer working. The owner of a bank in Marathon dropped off many supplies for our neighborhood, she has helped us a lot."

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