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Key West ‘not nearly as bad as everyone predicted’
Tati Roberts of Key West, Fla., retreats from the Higgs Beach pier Saturday, September 9, 2017, as Hurricane Irma approached. The storm left flooding and damage in its wake. (Rob O’Neal For The Washington Post )

Scott Unger got up at 7 a.m. on Sunday hoping to stare Hurricane Irma in the eye.

The wind on Key West, the southernmost point on the continental United States, was whipping hard, as was the rain, and every now and again a tree would fall with a crash. The turmoil was unrelenting, constant, and it went on for hours. As far as Unger could tell, there was never any calm, just chaos.

When Irma moved on and the rain waned, finally, in the midday light, the island found itself instead in the dark. No power. No water. No cellphone service. Unger, a reporter for the Key West Citizen, went to take a look around.

Though predictions had been dire, what Unger saw wasn’t. Sure, trees were down — a Gumbo Limbo here and a large mahogany there — but none that he saw had hit much of anything, really. There was flooding, too. Three-feet deep in some parts, mostly in low-lying areas and especially around the Key West Bight. Some places well-known to tourists — including Caroline Street, of Jimmy Buffett lyrics — were under floodwaters.

But a catastrophe didn’t materialize on Key West.

“There is some damage, but it’s far from catastrophic,” said Unger, who is working as a freelancer for The Washington Post this week. He trudged around town on Sunday surveying the damage. “Everyone we’ve talked to is happy and fine and considering it a win for Key West. Everyone’s in good spirits. The general sense is that we lucked out and it’s not nearly as bad as everyone predicted.”

The Miami Herald reported that trees smashed a couple of houses in Key West — including, neighbors said, one belonging to “the late, great children’s book author Shel Silverstein.” The Herald also reported that damage appeared to be far worse on islands to the east, near where Irma made landfall and its eyewall carried destructive force.

Unger was among the estimated 25 percent of Key West’s population that stayed to ride out the storm, ignoring evacuation orders. He said there were numerous people there Sunday after the storm passed. “It’s by no means a ghost town,” he said.

But Key West did go a bit back in time. There was almost no way to reach anyone off the island. Without power there was no Internet. Without cell service there was no phone. No information coming in, no information coming out.

To reach out to someone not on the island — to an editor in Washington — Unger and others had to get creative. At the offices of the Key West Citizen, operating under generator power Sunday, there is a fax machine. Upon close inspection, the fax machine allows for outgoing calls. How? No one seemed to know.

“A lot of people are concerned about getting the word out because we’re all cut off,” Unger said. “People are concerned about their loved ones in other places knowing they’re okay.”

Hurricane Irma: Storm moves north after pounding Florida
Heavy winds and rain are seen in Miami on Sunday. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Irma, the record-setting hurricane that devastated islands across the Caribbean, has been churning north through Florida — and has turned its sights on Georgia.

Visit the Capital Weather Gang’s live updates page for more on the storm.

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