September 27, 2017

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, the best thing we as a community can do is to rebuild with the help of our neighbors — and that comes in many forms. Right now, many of us are — and have been — knee deep in the actual devastation that the storm caused to our island homes in the Florida Keys. Cleaning, cutting, tossing, trashing, repairing and rebuilding have occupied our time and space for the past few weeks. For many this will continue in the days, weeks and even months to come.

But amongst the debris and the darkness we need to look for the light. If nothing else, there’s been a stronger sense of community since Irma passed here a few weeks back. People have set aside their differences and what were once their priorities, in an effort to help out those in need — and the community as a whole. Restaurants offered free food, neighbors offered a helping hand, first responders offered time and expertise and together we all benefited in the midst of what was otherwise a disaster.

But as we get further from the eye of the storm and closer to our everyday obligations, we can’t forget that sense of community that allowed us to rebound as quickly as we did.

Key West is fortunate enough to have loads of hands and solid infrastructure in place. We have a thriving tourist industry that will slowly allow us to put the storm in the backs of our minds. We’ll soon trade our work boots for flip flops and our chainsaws for dive masks. Cruise ships will jockey for space at the piers, Conch Trains will weave through the newly cleared streets, hotels will fill up and by Thanksgiving we’ll all be ready for “season”. And the cycle will continue.

That said, I want to assure all of us Key Westers that I’m not discounting the devastation that happened in our own backyard. When I first got back, Key West looked like a war zone and reports were that it was far worse in the days after the storm when the road was still closed.

People lost a lot in Key West, and in some sense there was a lot more to lose — the history and heritage here is entirely more decided and delicate than in the rest of the Keys. Hundred year old trees snapped like twigs — one crushed the late Shel Silverstein’s family home in Old Town — while decades-old boats that everyone recognized broke free from docks and moorings never to be seen again. The list goes on here in the Southernmost City, but my point is that we have already returned to some sense of normalcy, while our neighbors in the Lower and Middle Keys have not.

Just ten or fifteen miles up the road — and extending all the way to Islamorada and beyond — they won’t be as fortunate in the near term. The storm hit there harder in both a physical and metaphorical sense. Homes were leveled, properties flooded, hearts were broken and dreams shattered.

Along with all of the other evacuees who have made it back home, I saw it first hand as I drove back to the end of the road when it finally reopened. It was an odyssey. And photos didn’t do it justice. Words probably won’t either, so I’ll just stop here and get to where I’m going…

In seeing everything unfold, and in witnessing the aftermath, we can’t forget what the storm did to the Florida Keys as we get back to our daily routines. Most of all, we can’t forget the sense of community that allowed us to get back on our feet. And while we might not be in a position to continue to chainsaw and rake and repair in the coming weeks and months, we can still come together and be there for one another — eventually, once more, in the literal sense of the word.

At the heart of COAST is community. It’s what allowed a scrappy little trap yard on the edge of town filled with a ragged band of dreamers and doers to build houseboats that made hope float, to start a summer camp that teaches kids the value of getting dirty, to turn a single t-shirt into a full-scale retail operation in Old Town and to host some of the most memorable concerts the island has ever witnessed.

We managed all of this because of the people who thought it was a worthy cause — and it was you, our neighbors, who were there at the beginning when the odds were stacked against us. We’ll never forget that, and we always want to do our part to give back to our neighbors when the odds are stacked against them.

With all of this said, we are planning to host a benefit concert on November 30 — the last official day of hurricane season — a symbolic day to both remember, and move on from, the storms of 2017. At the moment, we are working on the line-up of performers which will have a mix of local and national talent.

Proceeds from the concert will go straight back into what the community needs — with emphasis on some of the places that were hardest hit by the effects of Irma. And we’ll connect with community leaders and organizations to find out where the funds will best be placed.

But what we are really hoping to accomplish is to re-establish that literal, tangible connection with our neighbors that we saw when we were down and out, displaced and devastated. Only this time we can celebrate and smile, sing and dance and collectively hope for a better road ahead.

While we work on all of this, we encourage you to keep your spirits high, hug your neighbor, take time to enjoy a sunset, have a cold beer, and spread the word.

And of course, stay tuned…

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