Historic Pigeon Key Forced to Close Indefinitely After Hurricane Irma Damage

photo via Pigeon Key Foundation
On Labor Day weekend 1935, a massive Category 5 storm rocked Florida, killing more than 400 people. Residents of the tiny, five-acre Pigeon Key a few miles west of Marathon fled just before their homes were hit with 200 mph winds and a storm surge 20 to 30 feet high.

The catastrophic hurricane wrecked the Florida Keys, but Pigeon Key proudly rebuilt. Now, more than 80 years later, the researchers and volunteers who have preserved the island's rich history are faced with another arduous cleanup. Hurricane Irma lifted buildings from their foundations and washed dozens of boulders ashore. Kelly McKinnon, the executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation, says that the island has decreased by as much as an acre of land and that 90 percent of its mangroves are gone.

"We lost a lot of real estate, honestly," McKinnon told Monroe County commissioners at a meeting Wednesday. "The power of this storm was just absolutely incredible."
click to enlarge
photo via Pigeon Key Foundation
Pigeon Key was uninhabited until the early 1900s, when crews began work on Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad. The island was originally set up as a work camp, but after construction was finished, a large number of the crewmen stayed. After hurricanes such as the one on Labor Day 1935, Donna, Andrew, and Wilma struck, many of the island's original buildings, including several that are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, remain intact thanks to preservation efforts by the Pigeon Key Foundation.

Though today Pigeon Key is mostly used for school field trips and educational tours for visitors, Irma has forced the small island to close to the public indefinitely while staff and volunteers clean up. A report to Monroe County says every single structure on the key was damaged to some extent. McKinnon adds that two buildings, including a commissary constructed in 1908, were hit so hard they were knocked off their foundations. The island also lost 75 percent of its vegetation. 

"We had significant damage from Wilma, but there’s more damage from Irma," he tells New Times. "This thing was just a monster."
click to enlarge
photo via Pigeon Key Foundation
To help with the expense of hurricane cleanup, the foundation is raising money to rebuild via a GoFundMe page, which has collected nearly $4,500 so far. Staffers have been working around the clock to clean up the damage, and McKinnon says volunteers have come to the island from all over the country to help.

"We’re very fortunate that we have an incredible staff and community that support us," he says. "Folks just came out from everywhere to help us."

In spite of the bad news, McKinnon is optimistic that Pigeon Key will be up and running in several weeks.

"In the end, no matter what, the island will be restored to what it looked like before," he says. "Like everybody else [in the Keys], Pigeon Key will come back better than ever after the storm."
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Jessica Lipscomb is the former news editor of Miami New Times.