With roads and airports wrecked and waters near the shoreline littered with dangerous debris, rescuers and emergency officials struggled to reach the Middle and Lower Keys by land, sea or air.
Residents who stayed found themselves with no means of communication.
Amid those conditions, neighbors in the Florida Keys put their own interests aside to help each other — and one act of altruism fed into the next.
A line to the outside world
Bascom Grooms, 45, a local real estate agent who rode out the storm, realized last Monday that his family’s Key West business, The Bike Shop, still had an operable land line. It dawned on him and his brother, Justin, who helps run the shop, “There’s a lot of people who are trying to get in touch with their relatives. … Nobody knows if they’re all right.”
At the time, the only source of information in the Lower Keys was US1 Radio, which had taken several precautions to remain on air. The radio station gets its name from the 113-mile highway connecting Key West to the tip of Florida; Irma damaged the road so badly that portions weren’t passable for days, cutting off Key West and other keys from the mainland.
Grooms gave the radio station a call around 10 a.m. Tuesday to announce that The Bike Shop would let locals use its land line from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
“I wasn’t even off the phone yet with the radio station and people started walking in the door,” he said.
Many of the people filing into the shop “would instantly break down and start crying” the moment they heard a loved one’s voice on the other line, Grooms said. The queue grew longer.
Grooms felt like a jerk, he said, because with roughly 100 people in line he had to institute a 30-second rule to make sure everyone had a chance to make a call. The three hours the Grooms brothers had scheduled turned to nine. Grooms estimates about 400 used the phone that day. Another 100 stopped by to use the phone Wednesday, he said.
Many residents arriving at the shop tried to pay the brothers, who refused at first. But they kept insisting, so the brothers decided to collect the funds and donate them to hurricane relief. By Wednesday evening, they had collected $682 in a yellow envelope.
‘They wanted us on air’
Rick Lopez, the general manager for Florida Keys Media, which counts US1 Radio among its eight radio stations in the Keys, said the station couldn’t have continued broadcasting without the dedication of its staff and the thoughtfulness of its audience.
Without power or cell service, Keys residents tuned in from their cars or on battery-powered radios to get news from the islands, including vital information such as where to pick up food and water. Lopez worries that there would’ve been “mass chaos and panic” had the station not been there to “provide that comfort, that voice to the people,” he said.
More than once, Irma threatened to shut the station down.
Lopez had sent his family to North Carolina ahead of Irma. He and a skeleton crew of six people stayed behind to run the station. They knew Irma would bring destruction, so they set up a generator and a special “studio-transmitter link” between US1 Radio’s building on Sugarloaf Key and its transmission tower.
The night before Irma’s landfall, Lopez went outside to check the link, which was strapped down to a handrail, when “I hear this huge pop, like BAM! Half the railing is busting off and it was about to take the STL with it.”
An engineer tied it back down with a rope “and somehow that damned thing held, by the grace of God,” Lopez said Sunday. “We would’ve been done. We’d still be off the air right now.”
When Irma hit, the radio station’s staff lost phone and email service. The station kept operating, but to disseminate important information, city and state officials had to physically drop by the station to get on air.
“We’re totally oblivious to anything else going on in the world. We had no idea where Irma went after it hit us,” Lopez said.
To keep the station running, someone had to fill the generator with special fuel — known as REC-90 — every 10 hours or so. Soon, the station’s staff found itself low on gas.
Lopez went on air and said the station would be happy to pay if anyone could drop off some REC-90, which is also used in marine engines. A marina on Stock Island, about 15 miles away, and several residents answered the call.
“Citizens were siphoning fuel out of their boats,” he said. “They were dropping off cans. People wouldn’t let me pay. They wanted us on air.”
Brothers’ change of plan
Kimmy Beier is one of Lopez’s employees who helped keep the station running.
A local on-air personality who wears many hats for Florida Keys Media, Beier and her husband lived on Big Pine Key with their “babies,” two rescued Pomeranians, Phoebe and Julius.
Irma made landfall on Cudjoe Key, about 10 miles west of Big Pine. As Beier worked at the radio station, the Category 4 hurricane destroyed her home, sending 4 or 5 feet of storm surge through it, rendering it “uninhabitable,” she said.
“It was covering the dresser,” she said, explaining that her husband was able to salvage only some clothes and tools.
She believes it was Wednesday night — she can’t be sure because the days have been running together — that Bascom and Justin Grooms arrived at the radio station and handed her an envelope containing $682.
“The donations that people insisted on leaving, their family wanted to bless us with,” she said, tearing up as she recounted the moment. “I cried and they wouldn’t let me on the mic. … It’s hard to talk when you’re crying.”
Beier, who has called the Keys home for a decade, has been sleeping on a single mattress in the radio station’s promotion room, the crate housing Phoebe and Julius nearby.
She and her husband will put the $682 toward the deposit and first month’s rent on a new apartment once some semblance of normality returns to the Keys, Beier said. As of Sunday, she said, Sugarloaf Key remains without running water, and US1 Radio continues to broadcast information about relief efforts.
“We’re trying to take care of the community. I don’t have a whole lot of time to think about our needs,” she said.
Like many in the Keys, Beier believes the archipelago will bounce back stronger because of the generosity and perseverance of its residents.
“My gratitude goes out to the entire Florida Keys community,” she said. “It’s been an outpouring of love.”