Two months ago the tranquility of the Florida Keys was shattered into a million pieces when Hurricane Irma made landfall in Cudjoe Key as a Category 4 storm.
The disintegrating force of the hurricane left a scar around Big Pine Key that remains today and one that carries the weight of a billion-dollar tourism industry.
If you know the lower keys like millions do, the images are not what you would expect. Debris fields stretch for miles and serve as a bold reminder of the pain inflicted on this slice of paradise.
“It was an experience I'll remember for some time,” says Tony Hall, manager of the Tiki bar at Looe Key Reef Resort and Dive center.
Hall rode out the storm and emerged from his room walking into a path of destruction carved out from damaging winds and waist-high storm surge. The rebuilding effort inside his Tiki Bar is well underway. But it hasn't been easy. The entire region has undergone a painstaking, slow and methodical recovery.
Dr. Brian Lapointe of FAU Harbor Branch was among the first scientists to survey the devastation. Some of which still permeates in the air in the form of a foul smell.
“That is hypoxic when you go below 2 mg liter,” says Lapointe.
Water is virtually dead from little to no oxygen in it. The problem goes deeper. Drone video taken hours after Irma hit shows roofs, boats and entire docks that litter the landscape.
Mark Molesworth of Looe Key Reef Resort and Dive Center can't even get his largest boat out because of the clogged mess. He took us on a tour pointing toward more than just a pulverized view. The clock is ticking just to stay afloat.
“Two months without being able to take people out, we take anywhere between 30-50 people a couple times a day, multiply that by two months, you see the economic impact it has.”
Millions of dollars have already been lost and calculating the catastrophic effect will leave you numb, especially from one ominous view of Looe Key Reef. “Big boulder corals that stand six feet high or more tumbled over,” says Lapointe.
His team shot exclusive video of the last living coral reef in North America. He's studied Looe Key Reef for 30 years and never has seen it this frail. “A scouring of the reef, just physical scouring like a sandblasting from all the movement of sand.”
It’s a sad reminder of the harsh reality of Mother Nature. But if history tells us anything reefs are resilient. And this one, despite a thrashing, has already gained more fish, greater visibility, and new divers. A return to normalcy that can't come soon enough for dive operators where a lifeline hangs in the balance. Each day brings them closer to a full staff, a full boat and a quality of life full of gratitude.
“We are all here because we love it because we love the reef, we love the Florida Keys and we love sharing it with people,” says Molesworth.