Hurricane Ian brings mix of destruction and some relief to Key West

Flooding and a fire affected many in Key West, but no casualties were reported.

September 30, 2022, 5:46 PM

Tyler Martin, a charter boat captain who lived on his fixer-upper sailboat in Florida's Key West, planned to set sail within weeks for Panama, where the boat would launch as the mainstay of his years-long passion project: a self-owned touring company.

Even before Hurricane Ian reached Key West on Tuesday, Martin feared for his boat. The wind and rain soon confirmed his worry.

Staying at a hotel nearby, he made a last-ditch effort to save the boat at 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday but later found it damaged beyond repair, with the mast broken and the hull cracked, he said.

"It's sad — like losing a loved one or a friend," he said. "I spent so much time with that boat, so much energy, and I have to accept that it's gone. I was very close to completing my dream."

Martin is among hundreds of Key West residents who have faced devastation in recent days. Flooding broke power outlets and ruined belongings in nearly 100 apartments, a fire engulfed a building on a main thoroughfare and more than a dozen live-aboard boats were severely damaged, Alyson Crean, a public officer with the Key West Fire Department, told ABC News.

PHOTO: Key West Fire Department works on a strip mall fire on Flagler Ave., in midtown Key West, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian's tropical winds, Sept. 28, 2022.
Key West Fire Department works on a strip mall fire on Flagler Ave., in midtown Key West, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian's tropical winds, Sept. 28, 2022.
Mary Martin/AP

While some residents experienced hardship, however, many expressed relief that the city hadn't endured far worse. Key West suffered no casualties or uptick in emergency room visits, Crean said, adding that the city largely returned to normal on Friday, as businesses and schools reopened.

The path of the then-Category 4 hurricane veered west of Key West, sparing it the strongest of the storm's impact. Still, Key West saw sustained winds of just under 50 miles per hour and gusts that reached 76 miles per hour, Crean said.

The mix of desolation and relief in Key West embodies the range of fates across Florida, where some communities escaped largely unscathed while others saw tragedy.

The death toll from Ian is at least 21, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Friday. That total is expected to grow.

President Joe Biden on Thursday approved a major disaster declaration for Florida, allowing additional federal aid to flow to the state.

In Key West, the most severe damage resulted from flooding and fires.

A storm surge on Wednesday caused 3-foot floods in 94 public housing apartments in Key West's Bahama Village neighborhood, Randy Sterling, the executive director of the Key West Housing Authority and the Monroe County Housing Authority, told ABC News.

The flooding affected between 250 and 300 low-income people, who lost many of their belongings and continue to lack power due to electrical damage, Sterling added.

"Obviously they were pretty freaked out and shaken up," he said. "A lot of these people lost most of what they owned."

The Housing Authority aims to fix the apartments within 30 days, Sterling said.

Meanwhile, a fire early Wednesday morning at a two-story, 40-unit building — made up of both homes and businesses — burned for at least 12 hours and left the building in "total loss," said Crean of the Key West Fire Department.

The fire displaced 15 residents, Crean added.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, she said. But she noted that building damage, downed power lines and dry conditions can make it "a tinderbox after a hurricane."

Michelle Adams, who works at Monroe Glass and Mirror located across the street from where the fire took place, said the building "looks like a bomb hit it."

PHOTO: Fire engulfs a mixed residential and commercial building in Key West, Fla., Sept. 28, 2022.
Fire engulfs a mixed residential and commercial building in Key West, Fla., Sept. 28, 2022.
Courtesy of Key West Fire Dept.

Citing other damage in the city, Adams described blown-out windows and fallen trees on the road. On Friday, Adams had received between 10 and 15 calls for replacement windows due to hurricane damage, she said.

Still, many residents experienced little impact from Hurricane Ian.

Jennifer McComb, the chief executive at the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys, said her organization hasn't seen much of an increase in need since the storm. The organization does plan to make grants to the Housing Authority and a local food bank, she added.

"We were relieved when we saw that the storm was turning a different way," McComb told ABC News. "For a while, it looked like it could've been a direct hit."

The Ernest Hemingway House & Museum avoided major damage but had some fallen leaves and branches in the yard, said Alexa Morgan, a public relations official at the museum.

The museum's employees weren't harmed, nor were the 59 cats who live on site, she said.

"Unfortunately there are members of our community that weren't so lucky," she said. "We're definitely keeping them in our thoughts and trying to do the best we can with the community to help."

"We did better than most," she added.

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