The little yellow house by the sea in Islamorada was a total wreck. Irma's winds had torn the hurricane shutters from the French doors. Huge ocean waves had pushed through and buried the interior in at least two feet of sand and punched holes in the drywall. A wicker chair and a white bedroom set were piled on the front lawn, still covered with sand. The driveway was buried, and the seawall had broken away and lay in the yard like a discarded child's toy.
Jose Herrera, a stocky, bearded, bald beermaker, stopped his neon-yellow Dodge Ram pickup out front and walked through the mess. The front door was open, and he looked inside to see a ponytailed woman in a tank top sorting though a broken blender and other appliances scattered about the kitchen and covered in sand.
"Wow," Herrera said. "Just wow. Where do we begin? I never knew that sand could do that to a house."
"Neighbors sent us pictures," said Selina Corliss, who had evacuated before the storm and returned a few days after to find her furniture destroyed and her home in disarray. "But I didn't imagine it could be this bad."
Over the next few hours, Herrera and several friends and co-workers moved chairs, tables, lamps, and anything they could save from the wreckage of Corliss' home to a nearby storage locker. They used shovels to try to dig out the sand so that at least the doors could be closed, but the task proved too Herculean.
"We're here to help out the Keys," Herrera said. "This is our family. Anyone would do this for family. People here aren't just our customers; they are our community."
On Friday, September 15, Herrera, a cofounder of Islamorada Beer Company, drove to the Keys from his Delray Beach home to help in whatever way he could. He was born in Venezuela and grew up in Delray Beach but fell in love with the Keys when he and business partners Tyrone Bradley, Nik Schroth, and Chris Trentine started the brewery in May 2014.
After Irma hit, there was no discussion among the partners about what they wanted to do.
Trentine scouted the area by boat, while Herrera took to social media to ask for donations. "First we collected water and food," he says. "Then people started saying they were too far away to bring items, so we started a GoFundMe campaign." Between the site and a fundraiser held at the company's Fort Pierce brewery, the partners raised close to $30,000 and collected about 40 pallets of food.
He loaded three volunteers, several dozen cases of bottled water, boxes of canned food, seven chainsaws, and other items into his company truck. Makeshift plywood walls propped up in the bed announced "Hurricane Irma relief" and "We love the Keys." They headed south and passed two checkpoints before most residents even knew what had happened to their properties.
"It was almost ESP," Herrera says. "We all knew what we needed to do."
Along Overseas Highway, it seemed as if the storm had divided the Keys. Though the bay side mostly fared well, on the ocean side, boats had been overturned and mobile home communities, hotels, and homes had been ripped apart. Adirondack chairs, ice machines, and waterlogged mattresses were piled so high on the side of the road they nearly blocked out the souvenir stores and restaurants that line the 100-mile stretch from Key Largo to Key West.
After arriving in Islamorada, Herrera first stopped at City Hall Cafe, just north of Mile Marker 88 on Plantation Key. After the beer company owner and his cohorts walked in, John Bedell, a burly man prone to outbursts of laughter, put out a carafe of coffee for locals to help themselves while he readied his eatery to reopen. A New Jersey native, Bedell debuted the place two decades ago. He says he rode out the storm in his bayside condo, which suffered little damage, but when the winds died down, he discovered something dramatic.
Driving around to assess the damage, he pulled up to a friend's rental property and saw a car parked outside. So he stopped, walked up to the door, and realized it was unlocked. Inside, he found Lannie, who's in his 70s. "He was on his bed, and it was physically floating," Bedell recalls. "It was a bizarre scene, but I was just happy he was alive."
Bedell grabbed him. "We got him outside and took the shutters off so the water would drain out. I kept saying, 'Let us take you somewhere,' but he didn't want to leave. He said he would rather sit in the dark alone." So Bedell ran to his restaurant to get towels, mops, and squeegees. "We kept mopping the water out, and we gave him dry clothes and food and Gatorade," Bedell says. "He's got a two-week supply of fresh City Hall T-shirts now."
Next, Herrera headed to Mile Marker 84, where the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar at the Postcard Inn was in a shambles. Since 1969, the open-air bar has been the scene of 21st birthday parties, happy hours, and weekend celebrations, but on this day, it was a Caribbean-themed ghost town. A giant drink cup sign lay on the ground next to an empty chainsaw box. The tiki totems at the entrance still stood, as did the colorful Tiki Bar sign. Beyond them, though, the only thing left to see was a mountain of rubble. A wooden walkway had disappeared, and the thatched roof had been blown off. Though there was no one around, someone had set the aluminum barstools upright in a row. The bit of order in such chaos and the completely flat blue ocean in the distance made the destruction seem somehow even more obscene.
Continuing south on Overseas Highway, Herrera stopped the truck at the Sea Breeze trailer park at Mile Marker 87. A blue-shingled prefabricated home in a once-desirable spot close to the ocean lay torn in two. A twin bed, still covered in orange sheets, was exposed to the elements. Inside a cabinet whose door had been flung open, a Keys-themed Christmas tree was decorated in starfish and sand dollars. Many residents didn't have the means to evacuate, so when Herrera and his team pulled up, the yellow truck became a makeshift convenience store. "Who wants peanut butter?" Herrera called out. "I have cereal." People lined up for everything from canned soup to chainsaws. Herrera apologized for squashed bread, but no explanation was necessary. These people were thankful for anything.
Outside the Green Turtle Inn, at Mile Marker 81, Tom Neville stood shirtless in baggy cargo shorts with piercing blue eyes and a mop of silver hair. While picking up the free scrambled eggs and sausage the restaurant has offered each morning after the storm, he explained that evacuation was difficult. "I had $7 in my bank account and a quarter tank of gas," he said, adding that Monroe County had declared his home unsafe. He pointed to an old Volvo. "That's where we're living now."
Just up the road, Islamorada Fish Company agreed to let Herrera use its market as a staging area for supplies and a makeshift food pantry. Mounted game fish had been taken off the wall for safekeeping, and about 40 pallets of water, soup, baby food, and canned vegetables were divided into a mini-supermarket. Herrera explained the pantry is open daily for Keys residents to take whatever they need. In addition, Islamorada Beer Company brewer Stephanie Harper has been taking carloads of food to local churches and two trailer parks in Key Largo. After unloading the yellow truck, Herrera said he plans to restock. "Helping the Keys is sexy now, but we want to plan for next week and next month."
Back where Herrera made his first Islamorada stop, Selina Corliss said he and his team from the brewery are an example of how Keys residents are helping one another. "My friend Ashley knows them, and they just showed up. I feel like they were so positive. There's no way I could have gotten heavy pieces of furniture moved without their help. It was overwhelming and emotional. I've cried."