Most Key West tourist spots will likely reopen by the weekend after Hurricane Ian gave the Southernmost City a soaking Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.
Duval Street, the world famous Gulf-to-Atlantic stretch of bars, cafes and boutiques, was littered with tree branches and downed signs.
But other parts of Key West were punched by storm surge and wind damage. Particularly hard hit: low-income residents of the Robert Gabriel and Fort Village subdivisions near Southernmost Beach.
“We’re talking 94 low-income families who need assistance,” said Randy Sterling, executive director of the Key West Housing Authority.
Ten townhouses in Robert Gabriel along Thomas Lane and 84 apartments in Fort Village along Truman Avenue got swamped with saltwater flooding from Ian’s surge.
“It came through the door. I had towels here,” said 74-year-old Sonny Rivas as he walked through the first floor of his two-story Robert Gabriel townhome in historic Bahama Village.
Despite the center staying well west of the Keys, the storm’s surge across Key West was the third highest in more than 100 years, according to the National Weather Service.
Rivas has lived in his house almost his entire life. The low-lying area between the Atlantic Ocean and Key West harbor is prone to flooding, especially during hurricanes. When Key West gets battered by bad weather, it’s often worst here.
Forecasters expected significant storm surge in Key West and the Lower Keys, but the area got about two feet more than anticipated.
“I heard they measured 4.4 feet on the south side,” Sterling said as he stood on Thomas Lane. “It may have been higher here.”
Bettijo Thompson, 67, proudly calls herself a Key West “native” when asked how long she’s lived in Bahama Village. Like many of her neighbors, she’s been through many hurricanes. But she was surprised by how much flooding she and her friends endured.
“We got it from both sides, front and back,” Thompson said. “It wasn’t expected.”
Jean Normil Morin stood outside his 62-year-old mother’s front yard Wednesday picking up his three young children who slept at their grandmother’s house. When he got word how bad the flooding was, he got into his car to drive from his home on nearby Stock Island to his mother’s to pick everyone up.
“I was trying to get through, but my car flooded, and it’s a total loss now,” Morin, 36, said.
The Keys saw three to five feet of storm surge on the Atlantic coast of the island chain, according to the National Weather Service in Key West.
Another residential area that received extensive flooding was Flagler Avenue, the site of an early Wednesday morning apartment complex fire that displaced 40 people and stressed already overworked first responders focused on the storm. The cause of the fire is under investigation and it’s not yet clear if it was related to the storm, said city of Key West spokeswoman Alyson Crean.
Jonathan Rizzo, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Key West, said the Southernmost City and the Lower and Middle Keys won’t likely see storm waters ebbing until Thursday morning.
And southwestern winds are blowing water into Florida Bay, exacerbating the already higher-than-normal seasonal “king tides” in the Upper Keys. Residential streets in some flood-prone neighborhoods in Key Largo won’t likely begin getting relief until the weekend, Rizzo said.
Aaron Pearlman, a 50-year-old general manager at Prime Steak House, woke up to significant damage to his home on Catherine Street in Bahama Village.
His one-story house filled with seawater Tuesday night, forcing him and his girlfriend to leave for higher ground at his neighbor’s house across the street.
“It came up through the floor, so it was panic mode, and we just hauled a--,” Pearlman said.
On Wednesday morning, Pearlman turned off the main breaker supplying electricity to the house and walked in to survey the damage.
The saltwater ebbed, but the waterline left on the walls shows it was up to 10 inches deep inside the house, a home Pearlman just bought.
“My first mortgage payment,” he said, “is due on the first of October.”