The Sunshine Economy: Hurricane Irma Shows Who Built Smarter And Stronger In The Keys

Sep 25, 2017

When Phil Waynick returned to his home on Little Torch Key after Hurricane Irma, he said it was "like a kid at Christmas." His home had survived some of the worst of Irma's wind, rain and storm surge. Many others were not as prepared or lucky.

Waynick's home was built in 1994. It sits on pilings with the living space on the second and third levels. Except for a small leak, the interior of his home came out OK. Almost everything on the ground level was ruined though -- tools, fishing gear, freezer chest, among the damage. He thinks he could have saved much of it, especially the fishing tackle, if he could have gotten back to the Keys sooner and washed off the saltwater. Waynick evacuated at the last moment. He said he ran into some of Irma's outer band rain when he drove though Key Largo on his way to the mainland. After seeing how his house fared, he doesn't think he'll leave again.

Almost 1,200 homes in the Lower Keys are suspected of being uninhabitable, according to an initial assessment by first responders in the days after the storm. Monroe County awaits a more official inventory. The county considers all of it's 7,500 mobiles essentially destroyed. WLRN confirmed the results during a trip to the lower Keys last week and an interview with Christine Hurley, an assistant administrator with Monroe County.

Danielle Griffin doesn't consider her mobile home one of those, though. She lives in Coral Shores Estates, a mobile home neighborhood on the northern tip of Little Torch Key. She was in Gainesville with her two sons and husband when the storm passed over her home. Her neighbors' homes had peeled back walls, missing roofs and caved in walls when WLRN visited nine days after the storm. But Griffin's mobile home had just a single loose hurricane strap and one broken window. She said her microwave fell off the kitchen counter, but otherwise she found no damage inside. She did acknowledge some of the interior doors didn't open and close as smoothly as they did before the storm -- a possible sign her home may have shifted.

Danielle Griffin and her dog Fez on the porch of her mobile home on Little Torch Key nine days after Hurricane Irma.

"Everything came out pretty well," she said. "I was pretty certain it wasn't going to be here." She added, "I don't understand how the house survived. I really don't."

That’s not true for others in the Lower Keys, especially homes not built on pilings and mobile homes. They were no match for Irma’s destructive Category 4 winds, heavy rains and storm surge. Among the factors making the difference between minor damage and destruction: homes built to updated building codes.

"Metal roofs are the bomb," said Monroe County Assistant Administrator Christine Hurley. Her responsibilities in the Keys includes buildings and code compliance. "Barrel tiles are the next strongest type of roof and shingles are last."

Hurley said the storm makes clear older and newer construction techniques. She thinks those newer homes -- those built after the post-Hurricane Andrew building codes -- are "livable. They'll have some improvements to make, but unfortunately the older [homes] and the ones below flood ([evel] will have to find alternative solutions."

Waynick is among those able to live in his home as he cleans it and makes repairs. "At least I still have a house. There's a lot of clean-up. I've lost a lot of money, but I still have a home and that's all that matters."