the Florida community that was Hurricane Irma’s ground zero

Police are retaining a tight grip on the lower Keys as search and rescue teams scour the area and evacuees begin to return, amid an uncertain future

A firefighter walks towards another home looking for any signs of life in Cudjoe Key. Photograph: Se/TNS/Sipa USA/Rex/Shutterstock

It’s not hard to grasp that Cudjoe Key, a small community of about 1,700 people among the islands of the Florida Keys, was the ground zero of Hurricane Irma.

Speedboats have been lifted like feathers from the sea and deposited on the roadside, camper vans overturned, gas stations flattened.

It was here that Irma first made landfall in Florida on Sunday morning as a mammoth category four hurricane, an event that will forever be etched into the history of Cudjoe.

The eye of the storm passed directly over its 700 or so houses, bringing a brief respite amid a serene and surreal calm, before bulldozing them again with winds of up to 130mph.

Which is why Tony Pothul, 44, emerging from a house right by the southern edge of the key where Irma landed, cut such a strange figure. Surrounded by the debris of the storm all around, Pothul had barely a hair on his head out of place.

Originally from Glasgow in Scotland, he came to live in Cudjoe Key about a year ago and sat out the storm taking care of the house, close to the water, on behalf of the homeowner from Montana.

It’s no surprise that Pothul fared well through a historically powerful hurricane: the house is built like maximum security prison, its concrete living spaces raised on stilts about 30ft above the water line.

Even then, Pothul says, you could feel the house shaking as Irma passed by, her immense energy able to rattle even the sturdiest property.

Perhaps most surprising, Pothul’s two cars, both soft-tops, were utterly untouched. “Smart, huh?” he said. “I parked them on high ground out of the wind.”

Others in Cudjoe Key have not fared so well. When Pothul was visiting a friend nearby in the neighborhood he heard a moaning cry, and approaching a house found that a man was crying for help inside.

The man, who uses a wheelchair, had been flipped on his side during the hurricane and had spent 26 hours on the floor. His wife has Alzheimer’s and was unable to come to his assistance; Pothul found her standing on the porch of the house looking out.

It is the plight of families such as this that emergency authorities are so worried about, labeling the Florida Keys a sight of an unfolding “humanitarian crisis”. When the…

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