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Post Irma, Florida Keys recovering

Region faces cleanup, long-term housing challenge following Category 4 hurricane

Volunteers from parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Miami inspect the grounds at the archdiocesan church most devastated by Hurricane Irma, St. Peter the Fisherman in Big Pine Key. The church has been deemed unusable and is expected to be rebuilt.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Volunteers from parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Miami inspect the grounds at the archdiocesan church most devastated by Hurricane Irma, St. Peter the Fisherman in Big Pine Key. The church has been deemed unusable and is expected to be rebuilt.

BIG PINE KEY | It’s an unsettling view from the Overseas Highway glancing toward St. Peter the Fisherman Church, where Hurricane Irma’s formidable storm surge left the stench of sea muck and ruin.

A lone statue of Our Lady sits in the rear of the property between a parking space and a stand of palm trees. A pile of canned goods from the parish pantry lies heaved in the briny mud. A team of maintenance men appear overwhelmed as they frantically look for the master valve to try to pressurize the water system.

Adjacent to the parish property, the American Red Cross has established a tent city, its temporary regional operations center and staff residence for the post-Irma Florida Keys.

The images are visible confirmation that the Big Pine and Marathon areas were among Florida’s ground zero for 2017’s most powerful Atlantic hurricane.

A statue of Our Lady stands among the debris at the Miami archdiocesan church most devastated by Hurricane Irma, St. Peter the Fisherman in Big Pine Key. The church has been deemed unusable and is expected to be rebuilt.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

A statue of Our Lady stands among the debris at the Miami archdiocesan church most devastated by Hurricane Irma, St. Peter the Fisherman in Big Pine Key. The church has been deemed unusable and is expected to be rebuilt.

In an online message to his community, Father Jesus “Jets” Medina, pastor of St. Peter, confirmed that Hurricane Irma’s greatest destruction of church property took place here. The church is unusable and will need to be rebuilt to code at a higher level; the rectory is uninhabitable and will need to be reconstructed, he noted.

On Oct. 3, Catholic Charities delivered a temporary trailer, furniture, generator and portable air conditioners to house the sacristy of St. Peter Church. Parishioners are celebrating a single Mass at 11 a.m. Sundays in the parish’s outdoor pavilion.

Irma had peak winds of 185 mph and Category 4 strength when it landed in the Florida Keys. From Key Largo to Key West, the area is littered with storm-related wreckage of varying degrees, raising concerns about housing prospects, especially for the many local employees and retirees who call this region home.

“We have said it will be a long process for recovery and I believe that is true, but I am very encouraged by the recovery efforts I see here — even from one week ago I see a huge difference,” said State Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness in Florida.

Nuñez and her staff joined a team of volunteers who delivered an ad hoc convoy of relief supplies to sites throughout the Florida Keys Sept. 26. The supplies were gathered at a dozen Catholic parishes and schools in the Miami area.

Nuñez, who has a vacation home in the Keys, said she has also been touring the area and meeting with community leaders to rally resources for the Keys.

Volunteers from parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Miami inspect the grounds at the archdiocesan church most devastated by Hurricane Irma, St. Peter the Fisherman in Big Pine Key. The church has been deemed unusable and is expected to be rebuilt.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Volunteers from parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Miami inspect the grounds at the archdiocesan church most devastated by Hurricane Irma, St. Peter the Fisherman in Big Pine Key. The church has been deemed unusable and is expected to be rebuilt.

“Today with this truckload of items we brought to donate to individuals, the elderly and low-income individuals, it is a humbling experience and I can’t say enough about the groups who collected, the outpouring of support,” Nuñez said. “It has been wonderful to see up close and personal that people make a difference and it is important to get involved and engaged in your community.”

Led by the efforts of St. Timothy parishioners Lourdes Mestre and Maria Blanco, along with their husbands and other volunteers, the post-hurricane team deployed a 26-foot truck full of donated bottled water, foodstuffs, cleaning supplies, toiletries and other items, most of which were ultimately deposited at a regional food bank operation underway at St. Justin the Martyr Church in Key Largo.

Led by a courtesy escort vehicle from Miami-Dade Fire Department, the caravan made its first round of stops in Key West, where they distributed supplies at low-income housing residences for the elderly, and separately for women and children, as well as at the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea.

“This was extremely generous and you can tell it was a labor of love, and we can’t thank you enough,” Angelina Castillo Kelley, a housing manager for a Key West Housing Authority residence for senior citizens, told the Miami volunteers.

State Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness in Florida, speaks with American Red Cross staff adjacent to the grounds of the Miami archdiocesan church most devastated by Hurricane Irma, St. Peter the Fisherman in Big Pine Key.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

State Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness in Florida, speaks with American Red Cross staff adjacent to the grounds of the Miami archdiocesan church most devastated by Hurricane Irma, St. Peter the Fisherman in Big Pine Key.

The elderly residents lost power during the hurricane, and again when a power generator went out. But staff from the U.S. Navy based nearby helped them get back up and running until local power and water were restored, Kelley said.

Along the way, the group were greeted by grateful “conchs”, Key West natives, including relatives of Key West’s mayor, Craig Cates.

Celice Cates-Gegg, the mayor’s sister who identified herself as a staff person at the senior citizen housing facility, said most of its residents stayed during the storm.

“We had a lot of people in here and it was a little overwhelming, and there were a lot of issues with people not being able to breathe with the heat, so we did a lot of water and food delivery as it came in,” Cates-Gegg said.

With the power out for several days, everybody living on the top floors couldn’t come down the elevators “which was a little aggravating,” she noted, “but the good side of that was they got up and moved around. They had to go up and down the stairs and they were walking more” and commenting on the benefits of that.

“These donations make them feel loved and that somebody cares, because there are a lot of them here that don’t have any family or they cut ties because they came to live the Key West lifestyle and now they are 65 years old and they are still in Key West but they are elderly and limited,” Cates-Gegg said.

Nearby, at Samuel’s House shelter for women and children, Cheryl Hollen Cates, wife of the mayor and a board member at Samuel’s House, told the Florida Catholic that the area is ready to start getting back to normal as much as possible.

“Key West didn’t get hit as bad as the other Keys 20 miles north of us, and actually we are trying to help those poor people,” she said. “I think from Sugarloaf to Big Pine and Marathon were among the worst hit.”

Elmira Leto, Samuel’s House founder and CEO, expressed concern for trailer park residents in the Florida Keys, including those in Stock Island just north of Key West, further north in Big Pine Key, and others situated off the main roads.

“The government needs to get more inland to reach those people who can’t reach their trailers,” Leto told The Florida Catholic. “There are people actually starving on Big Pine Key, and they have to get back in there and see who is hurting.”

“Two nights ago, I had a lady tell me she fed 45 elderly and other people from her patio because they are back there hungry and afraid to leave their trailer or can’t get to U.S. Highway One” where the distributions are situated, she said. Samuel’s House had evacuated its residents to Miami during the storm but now is full again and turning people away who suddenly need housing following the hurricane.

On Oct. 1, the Florida Keys officially reopened for visitors, three weeks ahead of the projected schedule. A statement from Monroe County officials noted, however, that recovery efforts are ongoing, especially in the Lower Keys and parts of Marathon.

“Motorists should use extreme caution when navigating these regions and stay off side roads to avoid hindering restoration activities. Throughout the Keys there are significant debris piles that are being picked up by cleanup contractors,” the statement said.

An American Red Cross vehicle is parked among the debris at the Miami archdiocesan church most devastated by Hurricane Irma, St. Peter the Fisherman in Big Pine Key. The church has been deemed unusable and is expected to be rebuilt.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

An American Red Cross vehicle is parked among the debris at the Miami archdiocesan church most devastated by Hurricane Irma, St. Peter the Fisherman in Big Pine Key. The church has been deemed unusable and is expected to be rebuilt.

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