House of Lords in Key West, Fla., is prepared for Hurricane Irma. (Francisco Alvarado for The Washington Post)
KEY WEST, Fla. — Jacqui Sands stands near the wrought-iron gate that leads into the courtyard of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, the latest weather updates and computer models still showing that Hurricane Irma is barreling toward the Conch Republic. As the historic site's general manager, Sands is tasked with securing the legendary author's 19th-century estate as well as ensuring the safety of the 55 cats that roam the lush ground here, many of them with six and seven toes on one paw.
"If I didn't have to, I wouldn't stay," Sands said. "My kids told me to get the hell out. But I have an obligation to take care of the building and the cats."
The petite 72-year-old won't be alone in her house- and cat-sitting duties; she'll be joined by nine employees, four of whom she has sent off to retrieve storm shutters and plywood from a nearby storage facility to board up windows and doors. "They couldn't leave because either they don't have a car or couldn't find a flight out of here," she said. "I think we are going to be fine."
The limestone French Colonial house, built in 1851, has withstood many tropical storms through the past two centuries, Sands said, noting that it sits about 16 feet above sea level, one of the highest points on this island at the end of the Florida Keys.
[Hurricane Irma batters Caribbean islands, officials say it poses an increasing threat to Florida]
Hurricane Irma — which could bring 20-foot storm surges and 185-mile-per-hour winds to Florida in coming days — is going to test Sands's resolve, should it make landfall in or near Key West, which had largely emptied out by Wednesday morning. The only signs of life on Duval Street, the town's famous main drag, consisted of shop owners putting up shutters and plywood to protect their storefronts and a handful of tourists seeking a place for breakfast. At the Key West Port, the cruise ships had long departed for safer docks and the inlet was devoid of pleasure craft. Only four small vessels remained in the marina, including a 50-foot boat that ferries residents and hotel guests to and from Sunset Key, a private 27-acre resort located in waters nearby.
The ship's captain, William "Harry" Privette, said the boat would make runs until 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. It will be stored in a dry dock facility on Stock Island until Irma passes the Keys. The 80-year-old Floridian said he has never been caught in a hurricane.
William “Harry” Privette, 80, a boat captain in Key West, Fla., has never sailed through a hurricane — and doesn’t plan to. (Francisco Alvarado for The Washington Post)
"Fortunately, I have never had to sit underneath a hurricane as it passed," Privette said. "Every time, it either veered off or never arrived."
Privette also pilots yachts. Once his shift is over, he has to drive up to Fort Lauderdale, where he is slated to pick up a 45-foot boat and take it to Puerto Aventuras, a port town in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. "The boat is fueled and provisioned," he said. "They are just waiting on me. If we don't make it out tonight, we don't go."
He intends to keep his track record of missing hurricanes.
"I know what happens when they show up," Privette said. "I don't want to be here when this one does. It's nasty."
Late Tuesday evening, some mainstays, including Sloppy Joe's, kept the doors open for dozens of straggling tourists. As R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It" blared through the speaker system, Bob and Donna Calderaro sipped margaritas from plastic cups while checking their phones for the latest Irma updates. The Calderaros seemed more annoyed than concerned about the Category 5 storm that appears to be competing to be the queen of all hurricanes.
"We got here on Monday," Bob Calderaro said. "We were supposed to stay until Friday. This is our once-a-year getaway."
The 66-year-old Orlando resident and his wife had booked their stay at the Best Western Hibiscus Motel two weeks ago and decided to take a chance that Irma would veer off course or lose steam by the time it reached the Florida peninsula. But on Tuesday morning, government officials announced an evacuation order for all visitors starting the following day. Later that afternoon, locals were added to the warning.
"We've had to cancel trips in the past because of a storm that ended up not hitting Key West," Calderaro said. "We figured if it dissipates or goes somewhere else, great. The worst-case scenario was leaving early. I guess we knew what we were getting into."
A woman two seats away from Calderaro overheard his conversation. She and her husband are also in town from Orlando for a short end-of-summer vacation. "We've got a boat trip tomorrow," she says. "We want to enjoy the time we have left before the long drive back home."
The Caldereros were among dozens of straggling tourists who had yet to heed the call to leave the southernmost point in the United States. By early evening Tuesday, most of Duval Street was turning into a ghost town. Many storefronts already had been sandbagged and boarded up. A printout taped to the door of a Starbucks informed customers that the coffee shop would be closed until further notice because of Irma, and similar postings were taped to nearby business fronts. Smoke shops, tattoo parlors and stores selling Key West T-shirts and souvenirs were among the few retailers that kept doors open late into the night.
At Beachwear Outlet, Jack Maruschak said his boss planned to board up the doors and the display windows before the storm nears. The 25-year-old Ukraine native came to Key West via Miami 3½ years ago. "It's one of the best places to start in a new country," Maruschak said. "It's a very small island, so it is easy to get around and there are a lot of Russian speakers here."
Last year, Maruschak remembers the media attention circling around Hurricane Matthew, but he never felt compelled to get out of Key West.
"No one was telling people it was going to hit Key West," he said. "The last two hurricanes passed over us. This time, all the calculations show Key West is going to be in the middle of the most powerful hurricane's path. That is scary."
Maruschak said he planned to leave about 4 a.m. to start the long drive to northern Florida or Georgia. "I'll probably rent an Airbnb," he said. "I imagine there is going to be a lot of traffic on the roads."
At the LGBTQ watering hole 801 Bourbon Bar, a trio of drag queens tried to entice the few people on the street to check out their cabaret "Hurricane Survivors" show. Jade Starr, a 33-year-old performer in a leopard print leotard, said she and her friends planned to ride out the storm, should it hit Key West.
"I'm one of those idiots who is staying," said Starr, a Tampa native who has lived here for two years. "Something is telling me to stay. I don't know if it is to help rescue animals and people after the storm passes or if it is just Key West fever."
Starr said she doesn't feel scared about Hurricane Irma's ferocity: "It is what it is. I am prepared. I have water and food. And I have lived through several hurricanes already."
Starr's friend Marilyn Daniels said she has lived in Key West for 31 years, noting that in the 1980s a major storm knocked out electricity for several months.
"I survived that and I will survive many more," Daniels said.
Club promoter Edwin Lucas didn't sound as confident.
"You're really gonna stay through a Category five?" he asked. "I'm debating whether or not to leave."
A store in Key West, Fla. is closed and shuttered ahead of Hurricane Irma’s arrival. (Francisco Alvarado for The Washington Post.)