Paradise has seen better days. The Florida Keys are battered, if not entirely bowed
“I moved here because I wanted paradise — and I got it, at least for a month,” said Laura Costello, 52, a former South Pasadena resident who was found walking through the ruins of the Sea Breeze trailer park in Islamorada, a few miles south of Key L
People here like to throw around the word “paradise,” but these days Route 1 down the spine of the Florida Keys cuts through a jagged tableau of destruction.
Felled palms, splintered trailers and homes, and piles of trash — boats, furniture, appliances and other assorted debris — line the roadside, testament to the force of Hurricane Irma as it careened through the islands.
Shuttered doors and tangles of broken branches conceal resorts with resonant names like Kon-Tiki, the Banyan Tree, La Siesta and the Green Turtle Inn.
Trailer homes at the Sea Breeze trailer park in the Florida Keys town of Islamorada were destroyed by Irma.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Ross inspects the damage to his three-story condominium building in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The remains of a boat in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Brooke Gilbert, 15, and her father, Mike Gilbert, look at the ruins of her grandparents’ condominium building in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Laura Gilbert retrieves the mailbox from her father’s condominium in Islamorada after it was swept away during the storm.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Sand and debris block access to trailer homes in Islamorada.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Greg Garner embraces neighbor Linda Nettles in front of his longtime family home that lost part of its roof after Tropical Storm Irma hit Sullivan’s Island, S.C.(Mic Smith / Associated Press)
Overturned trailer homes Sept. 11 in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma over the Florida Keys.(Matt McClain / Pool Photo)
The aftermath of Hurricane Irma is seen from the air Sept. 11 over the Florida Keys.(Matt McClain / Pool Photo)
The aftermath of Hurricane Irma is seen from the air Sept. 11 over the Florida Keys.(Matt McClain / Pool Photo)
Israel Alvarado, 25, tries to open a gate blocked by fallen tree branches to retrieve a generator in Bonita Springs.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Rescue workers help a couple evacuate their flooded home in Jacksonville.(John Raoux / Associated Press)
Charlotte Glaze, left gives Donna Lamb a hug as she floats out some of her belongings in floodwaters in Jacksonville,.(Dede Smith / Associated Press)
Ron Colby, 70, leaves his flooded Bonita Springs home after staying during Hurricane Irma. He said he was OK with the wind but that at 3:30 in the morning the water started to rise.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A dresser floats by Gilberto Diaz in his Bonita Springs neighborhood. Originally from Guatemala, Diaz has lived in Florida since 1994.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
In Bonita Springs, floodwaters reached waist deep in some areas on Monday, flooding homes and cars.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A block from the ocean in Naples, the water was still a foot deep from storm surge. Homeowner Terry Clontz put up a “no wake” sign because people were driving by too fast, pushing water farther onto his property.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Floodwaters surround a marina in Key Largo on Monday following Hurricane Irma.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Mobile homes in Key Largo, Fla., lie in ruins on Monday after Hurricane Irma.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Floodwaters surround Gilbert’s Resort in Key Largo on Monday.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Kelly McClenthen returns to see the flood damage to her home with her boyfriend, Daniel Harrison, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Bonita Springs, Fla.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Terry Thompson is relieved. He rode out the storm in his home in Riverwood Estates in Naples. Although the Naples area of Florida was hit hard by Hurricane Irma, damage wasn’t nearly as bad as anticipated.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A woman leaves her flooded home the morning after Hurricane Irma swept through the area in Fort Myers, Florida.(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
People tend to a car that flipped over on Cape Coral Parkway during Hurricane Irma, in Cape Coral.(Gerald Herbert / AP)
A man clears the drain next to his house in Estero, Fla., during the lull in winds as the eye of the hurricane passes over.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Evacuees use flashlights so others can maneuver around the stairway at Hampton Inn and Suites in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Guests gather in the lobby of Hampton Inn and Suites in Estero, Fla., to watch the hurricane gusts.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Darla Talia Ferro, 40, and her two parakeets ride out Hurricane Irma in the lobby of Hampton Inn and Suites in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
John Krowzow, 74, wades in floodwater to check out his homes in Corkscrew Woodlands, a park with 640 senior mobile home units in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Peter Moodley wades through floodwater in downtown Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Two men walk through a downed tree as Hurricane Irma’s full force strikes Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A woman films the damage from a house whose roof was blown off near downtown Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A vehicle drives through debris caused by Hurricane Irma, in Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Weather reporters in downtown Miami jump and cling on to illustrate the force of the winds caused by Hurricane Irma.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Weather reporters do a stand-up as the force of the winds caused by Hurricane Irma hit Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A cargo truck is tipped over by the wind caused by Hurricane Irma in Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Storm surge floods the Brickell neighborhood of Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Streets are empty in downtown Miami as the wind picks up speed during Hurricane Irma’s approach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Maria Koenig, 63, of Estero, Fla., and her dog, Baeley, sit by the window at their Estero hotel so Maria can keep an eye on the storm on Sunday.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Glen Sinatra, 69, from Naples, says he feels lucky to be at a hotel in Estero instead of a shelter. He’s nervous about the storm and says he’s trying not to worry his children about the conditions.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Jimmy Alfano, of Ft. Myers, holds onto Alec Hoskins who is autistic, while watching the storm gusts through the window of their Estero hotel with Frank Pairs.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A car sits abandoned in storm surge along North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard as Hurricane Irma hits the southern part of the state.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
The metal canopy at a gasoline station is overturned by high winds brought on by Hurricane Irma.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Youssef Ezzou, left, and Fadel Beznbachir roam outside to check out the conditions in Miami as Hurricane Irma nears the mainland.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A construction crane whose arm broke off towers over a building as high wind blows through downtown Miami on Sunday.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A man and woman run to safety in Miami as winds from Hurricane Irma bear down on Sunday.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Storefronts in Miami are damaged as Hurricane Irma’s winds hit Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Hurricane Irma arrives at the Boynton Beach inlet.(Jim Rassol / Sun Sentinel)
Dustin Terkoski, Palm Bay Police officer surveys the scene after a possible tornado touched down at Palm Pam Bay Estates.(Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel)
A man braces against the wind by the Miami River on Sunday as water levels surge.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A man stands by the Miami River as the water level surges on Sunday.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The waves on the Miami River begin to surge Sunday as winds pick up speed upon Hurricane Irma’s approach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Brian Williams, of Maryland, fights the winds in downtown Fort Myers.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Trees fall as winds pick up speed early Sunday as Hurricane Irma approaches Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A TV reporter braces against the wind as Hurricane Irma approaches Miami.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The outer bands of Hurricane Irma start to reach Florida on Saturday, with clouds over the Miami skyline.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images )
People wade through a flooded street in Havana after Hurricane Irma battered central Cuba.(YAMIL LAGE / AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands wait Saturday to enter a storm shelter set up at Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., south of Fort Myers.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Jean Turner, 79, waits to get into a shelter with a few of her belongings as rain begins to fall Saturday in Estero, Fla.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Sherri Bourdo, 32, and Anthony Guidry, 40, look out over the water in Naples, Fla, in advance of the arrival of Hurricane Irma.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Lisette Toroella and Tatiana Morera play on the beach as storm clouds approach in Miami Beach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Adam Todd, does a handstand while skateboarding down a virtually empty Ocean Drive in Miami Beach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Abby Jenkins walks against the wind with her luggage and umbrella to get to safety, in Miami Beach.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
James Sampero surfs in the churning ocean as Hurricane Irma approaches.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Cubans wade through the rubble from a collapsed building in Havana on Saturday.(Yamil Lage / AFP/Getty Images)
A woman and child use a blanket as protection from wind and rain as they walk in Caibarien, Cuba. Hurricane Irma battered Cuba on Saturday with deafening winds and unremitting rain, pushing seawater inland and flooding homes before turning toward Florida.(Desmond Boylan / Associated Press)
Annette Davis plays with her son Darius, 3, while staying at a shelter in Miami on Saturday after evacuating from their home in Florida City ahead of Hurricane Irma.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Residents walk through rain brought on by Hurricane Irma in Caibarien, Cuba. The powerful storm battered Cuba on Saturday and continued its march toward Florida.(Desmond Boylan / Associated Press)
Palmetto Ridge High School is a shelter for people with special needs near Naples, Fla. Many seniors plan to ride out the storm there.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Francesca DeLuca, age 20, will be waiting for 10 hours for her flight back to Milan, Italy. She had been visiting a friend in Miami by herself, but the area where she was staying is under mandatory evacuation. At Miami International Airport, the last flights will be this afternoon with the airport closing tonight at 6pm. Most travelers are taking flights to anywhere they can find.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Boats that can’t be evacuated are tied off in canals to protect them from Hurricane Irma on in Key Largo, Florida. The entire Florida Keys are under a mandatory evacuation notice as Hurricane Irma approaches the low-lying chain of islands south of Miami.(Marc Serota / Getty Images)
Hundreds wait in line on Friday at Home Depot in Miami to get supplies line sheets of plywood, and anything else they can find, to board up their homes. Police were on the scene to keep things orderly.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A Royal Logistics Corps Mexeflote approaches Sandy Bay Village beach in Anguilla loaded with British army trucks, multiterrain vehicles, generators and other equipment on Friday. French, British and Dutch military authorities rushed aid to a devastated string of Caribbean islands Thursday after Hurricane Irma left at least 11 people dead and thousands homeless.(Royal Navy )
In the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, Fritz Drinks, whose family is from Haiti, helps load sandbags at Little Haiti Hardware and Lumber. Many people in the area are refusing to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Irma.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
In downtowm Miaimi, people wait to get on a bus headed to Orlando under a mandatory evacution plan. Preparations are underway for Hurricane Irma as the storm makes its way toward Florida.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Stores are boarded up in Miami Beach in advance of Hurricane Irma.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Preparations for Hurricane Irma are underway in Miami Beach as the storm makes its way toward Florida.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Genaro Dacosta, 65, of Miami Beach loads sandbags in advance of Hurricane Irma. He says he can’t evacuate the area because he has a monkey.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
An aerial photograph taken and released by the Dutch Department of Defense on Wednesday shows damage from Hurricane Irma in Philipsburg, St. Maarten.(Gerben van Es / AFP/Getty Images)
Juan Negron, third from left, prepares to start up a power generator in front of what’s left of his damaged property in Culebra, Puerto Rico, after the passage of Hurricane Irma.(Carlos Giusti / Associated Press)
Residents come out to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Irma in Nagua, Dominican Republic.(Tatiana Fernandez / Associated Press)
People on Thursday look over damage from Hurricane Irma on a sand-covered street of Marigot, near the Bay of Nettle, on the island of St. Maarten.(Lionel Chamoiseau / AFP/Getty Images)
Inmate trustees from the Brevard County Jail fill sandbags for Meritt Island, Fla., residents in advance of Hurricane Irma.(Brian Blanco / Getty Images)
Motorists leave Key Largo, Fla., ahead of Hurricane Irma.(Alan Diaz / Associated Press)
Many residents were returning to their homes Tuesday for the first time, as police allowed access to the northern swath of the Keys. Many expected the worst, and that is what they found amid rubble that glistened beneath an unforgiving tropical sun.
“I moved here because I wanted paradise — and I got it, at least for a month,” said Laura Costello, 52, a former South Pasadena resident who was found walking through the ruins of the Sea Breeze trailer park in Islamorada, a few miles south of Key Largo.
The Keys had perhaps taken the heaviest blow in the U.S. from Irma — federal authorities estimated that 85% of the homes were damaged or destroyed — but the storm left its muddy footprints all over Florida and into Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. It was still plodding north on Tuesday, spreading rain over a widening swath of the Southeast. In its wake was a massive cleanup job, complicated by fuel shortages and power outages; an estimated 15 million people in the Southeast lacked electricity.
In Florida, there was significant damage as far north as Jacksonville, which sustained its heaviest flooding in decades.
President Trump planned to visit the hurricane zone Thursday, the White House said, without disclosing an itinerary.
The death toll from the storm was rising, with 12 fatalities in Florida, four in South Carolina and two in Georgia, according to the Associated Press. The storm killed at least 36 people on its rampage through the eastern Caribbean last week before hitting Florida with full force on Sunday.
By Tuesday, Islamorada looked like a malevolent giant had come stomping through, wreaking havoc on people’s homes and personal possessions. Gnarled chunks of aluminum siding were thrown about with wood beams, many with protruding nails, and other pieces of former residences.
Among the many nautical remnants: a placard found tossed in the pearl-white sand of the trailer park that declared: “To our guests. Thou shalt not bring thy worries aboard.”
A few American flags fluttered from the wreckage.
Costello said she began renting a trailer here a month ago for $1,500 a month. She always loved the sea.
“This was the ultimate for me,” she said. “I could sit out and watch the sun rise and set. It was what I always wanted. It was a dream.”
Her one-bedroom trailer is now a ragged wreck, pushed 10 yards off its cement foundation. Her seaside deck was blown 15 yards away.
“There’s my bed,” Costello said, pointing at a wooden frame half a block from where her home was. “Those are my curtains.”
Fortunately, she heeded the warnings and evacuated last Wednesday with her most precious possessions. She had lived in Florida for more than 20 years and didn’t discount the dangers of hurricanes.
On Tuesday she plucked from the ruins of her dream home a single item: a glass frame mounted with color photographs of her three children when they were young. All are grown now.
“I have my health, I have my life. I’m fine,” said Costello, a bartender in nearby Key Largo, standing at the splintered entrance to her trailer. “I’m just glad I got out of here.”
Nearby were storefronts with plywood strips and shattered windows — and in some cases blown-off roofs. There were storm-battered wine bars, cafes, fish joints, yoga haunts and bait shops. Piled junk obscured the colorful mural of a mermaid on a motel wall.
The trail of damage seemed oddly disjointed. Destroyed homes sat next to other structures that appeared largely unaffected.
In a small harbor, several manatees came to the surface to drink fresh water from a faucet dripping into a now becalmed sea. The slow-moving sea mammals maneuvered around a sunken fishing boat.
But many storage facilities where people kept their vessels onshore seemed to have escaped major harm.
The damage was reported to be even more severe to the south in Marathon, but police closed access. Several small planes at the airport there were reportedly flipped over as authorities endeavored to clear debris-choked streets.
Here in Islamorada, the Gilbert family was contemplating the remains of their condo, once on the third floor of a 12-unit complex along Route 1. The land is very narrow here, perhaps a quarter of a mile or less across, and the sea appeared to have ripped straight through the condominium complex. Most of it sank into the soft sand.
The three-story structure had pancaked, leaving the family’s third-level condo at ground level, in front of a pool of water with ripped pipes and other debris.
“This is very emotional for me and my family,” said Brooke Gilbert, 15, gazing at the remains of the structure and showing a visitor a cellphone snapshot of the building in better times.
The family drove down today from their home in Fort Lauderdale to view the damage. The condo was her grandparents’, but had been part of the Gilberts’ life for many years. Someone had sent them a photo of the destroyed structure, but they only arrived Tuesday to view it firsthand. They were in collective disbelief.
“This is where I learned to swim, where I learned to drive a boat, where I caught my first lobster,” said Brooke, holding back tears as she and her father, Michael Gilbert, observed the smashed home.
It was too unsteady to go inside to retrieve personal items.
“It’s just very difficult for us to come back here and see this,” said Brooke. “It was such a part of all of our lives. Now it’s gone.”
Times staff writers Evan Halper in Jacksonville, Fla., and Laura King in Washington contributed to this report.
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