On Thursday, Sept. 21, a group of Key West locals and first responders gathered at Mallory Square overlooking the harbor for a very special sunset celebration. It was a reclamation of their hometown and a chance to reunite in true Conch Republic fashion with drag queens, live music and refreshments in the midst of recovery efforts since Hurricane Irma made landfall just 20 miles north on Cudjoe Key on September 10.
All proceeds from the celebration went towards the Sister Season Fund, a local not for profit committed to ending homelessness and help locals employed in tourism-related industries recover from temporary financial emergencies through no fault of their own.
Above, scenes from Thursday night’s Key West Mallory Square Reclamation celebration and fundraiser.
The celebration was spearheaded by Jim Gilleran, owner of 801 Bourbon on Duval Street, who re-opened his bar almost immediately after Irma swept through the island to serve thousands of free meals to first responders and locals who chose to hunker down during the storm.
While there’s a long road to recovery for the 125-mile long island chain, Key West business owners have a message to tourists: We’re still here.
Christopher Shultz, owner of The Porch, which is open for business, is concerned that misleading national media headlines of total devastation will dissuade tourists from returning. “We have a big mess of trees,” Shultz said. “That’s really it. We’re rebuilding. The party atmosphere and the fun didn’t get blown away. Tree branches did.”
The Keys will officially re-open to tourists on October 1. In the meantime, the Port of Key West is open and the first cruise ship visited the island as soon as Sunday. American, Delta and Silver airlines have resumed flights to Key West International Airport and all bridges on the Overseas Highway are open and safe for travel. The few breaches in the roadbed caused by storm surge were quickly repaired, according to Florida Department of Transportation officials.
A state of emergency is still in effect as recovery efforts continue, but Key West residents were granted re-entry privileges last Sunday September 16.
Nearly 100 percent of power has been restored to the Upper and Middle Keys from Key Largo to Marathon, while 95 percent has been restored in the Lower Keys from Key West to Sugar Loaf. Some 400 crews are still working in other parts of the Lower Keys from Sugarloaf to the Seven Mile Bridge, according to the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative and Keys Energy Service.
The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority says that all of the islands except Cudjoe Key and Summerland Key now have water 24/7.
While parts of the Lower Keys, including Cudjoe, Summerland, Big Pine and Marathon, as well as Islamorada’s bayside in the Upper Keys were most severely impacted, Key West and Key Largo sustained the fewest impacts, according to the Keys tourism council.
In Key West, many bars and restaurants have re-opened for business, some with limited hours, many providing relief specials or free meals, including 801 Bourbon, The Porch, Green Parrot, Sloppy Joe’s, Antonia’s and others.
Local water sports operator Fury Water Adventures is expected to re-open tomorrow with their live music sunset sail, known as the Commotion on the Ocean, and all other trips, including snorkeling, parasailing and jet skiing, are set to resume on October 1. Guests will enjoy a 50 percent discount on trips through September 30 with code FUIRMA.
Some hotels are starting to open for business, as well, while also housing FEMA workers, including The Perry, a new hotel on Stock Island just north of Key West that sustained no structural damage from the storm. They’re giving away 150 free cold lunches daily to relief workers at their Salty Oyster Dockside Bar & Grill from noon to 2 p.m. through September 30.
Other hotels open for business include La Concha, Pier House, Margaritaville, The Gates and 24 North.
On Wednesday night, a group of locals gathered at Mary Ellen’s Bar, which Shultz also owns, for its weekly Full Metal Trivia party.
“The first thing everyone said to each other was, ‘How are you doing? Do you need anything?,'” Shultz recalls. “It’s times like these when everyone steps up and helps each other out. People are out with chainsaws or serving hot meals. That’s what makes this community so special. It feels more like Key West than it has in a long time.”
For updates on the Keys recovery process, visit KeysRecovery.org.