“It’s not the same place” The Keys reopen, but still need to rebuild. | photo

FLORIDA KEYS – Shortly after 5 p.m on Tuesday, Kim Ackerman closed the gates to the pastel-painted Shell World, a kitschy Key Largo gift shop near the gateway to the Keys.

She’d seen three customers that day.

But nearby, a sign of hope gleamed in LED letters over the highway: “U.S. 1 Keys is open to Key West.”

Hurricane Irma interrupted the party in paradise, but only for a time. On Sunday – three weeks after the storm thrashed the chain of islands, killing 14 and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage – the Keys will officially reopen to tourists.

“People are mentally drained, and everybody is so stressed out,” Ackerman said. “But everybody is wanting to get back to work, pay the bills.”


“Well … “

Tourism is a $2.7 billion industry in the Keys, according to Monroe County estimates, as vital here as water is to a conch. It accounts for 60 percent of every dollar spent and employs more than half of the workforce.

Many of those workers returned from evacuation to find their homes damaged or gone. For most, the recovery has just begun. Paychecks are sorely needed. So are hot meals and a place to sleep.

Irma leveled entire neighborhoods, and the remnants are scattered everywhere – except U.S. 1. It took hundreds of hours to clear the highway.

Visitors will soon drive from the Florida mainland to Key West, the iconic westernmost getaway. Businesses along those 113 miles are desperate for them to arrive.

Are islanders ready? Do they have a choice?

One of the many spray-painted signs along U.S. 1throughout the Florida Keys. Other signs include: “#KEYSTRONG,” “Screw You Irma,” and “YOU LOOT, WE SHOOT.”

Kombucha in one hand, two backpacks in the other, Tabitha Perryman navigated her three young children…

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