Irma wipes out dreams across independent-minded Florida Keys

BIG PINE KEY, Fla. (AP) — Tim Stanton emerged from his ruined workshop off Highway 1 on Big Pine Key and collapsed to the ground, his sunburned, tear-covered face contorted in anguish.

The skeleton-thin 58-year-old with long, stringy gray hair sat under an old gas station awning, overcome by his personal loss in this idyllic place that was one of the hardest hit by Hurricane Irma. A tree fell on the trailer where he lives, and his shop was destroyed, along with an old BMW convertible he had just bought with saved money.

Like many people who drop out of more traditional lives to come to the Keys and forge their own path, Stanton moved here eight years ago from Pennsylvania with plans to cobble together a living based on his own ideas and entrepreneurship. First he sold fresh-pressed lime and sugarcane drinks on the roadside, then gained a local name for crafting ukuleles out of old cigar boxes and worked in a fruit grove. He managed to stitch together an income in one of the nation’s most expensive places and was just getting by when Irma roared into town.

“It’s great here if you’re rich, but for the rest of us it’s a struggle,” said a sobbing Stanton, who goes by the nickname “Ukulele Tim.” Now “it’s going to be a while before it’s paradise again. I had just scraped up enough to buy a car. Destroyed.”

Those who live here know the bargain: turquoise waters and powdery sand but also hurricanes. Still, locals consider themselves hardy souls who are willing to gamble on escaping a direct hit. The last hurricane to make landfall here was Charley in 2004. Irma destroyed at least 25 percent of homes on the Keys, according to FEMA, and badly damaged systems for delivering water and electricity.

The storm’s savagery assaults the senses. The sour, fishy stench of seaweed thrown ashore by Irma fills the air. The main road is dotted with dead iguanas smashed by work trucks and first responders. Sirens wail constantly from emergency crews racing from one end of the Keys to the next. All around is debris and ruin.

For Stanton and other residents, the reality of the task before them is starting to take root. And it’s too much to bear.

“I feel so beat now. It’s just insult to injury,” he said.

Across the road from Stanton’s shop, homes and trailers are toppled. Electricity is out, and a boil-water notice is in effect. A mobile cellphone tower was erected Thursday, bringing the first communications for some who had been cut off from their families since the storm.


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