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Grim upside for the Florida Keys this hurricane season: Because of Irma, there's less to lose

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BIG PINE KEY, Fla. Hurricane Irma took Dirk Lockard's truck, his tools, his house — "it folded like a house of cards" — and turned the working class island he called home for the past 16 years into a scene of devastation. When the Category 4 storm swept through Big Pine Key in September with 140 mph winds and 5 feet of storm surge, it wiped out houses, crumpled trailers and scattered boats.

Still, Lockard, 58, isn't that worried about this year's hurricane season. He doesn't have much more to lose anymore.

"We have minimalized considerably," he said, sitting in front of his current home, a new trailer.

Although Big Pine, one of the hardest hit areas in the storm, still has work to do before the community is fully recovered from Irma, the rest of the Florida Keys appear to be back online and ready for hurricane season. The county promises issues from last year — a fight over debris removal contractors and anger over re-entry procedures — won't be repeated. Money is trickling in from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the residents in FEMA-subsidized housing are down to a just a few.

Most important, said Martin Senterfitt, emergency management director for the Keys, residents had their storm preparation muscles flexed.

"Prior to Irma 90 percent of the people in the Florida Keys have never experienced a major hurricane. Now 90 percent of people have. Just that institutional knowledge, that right there is an incredible strength. We have a whole community now that gets it."

That includes Lockard and his wife. He said that if the spaghetti models show another hurricane headed for the Keys, they'll rent a truck and haul their trailer home and remaining belongings to safety. And they probably won't come back.

Like many on Big Pine Key, Lockard can't afford to rebuild a home that meets the hurricane-resilient codes that have been considerably strengthened up in the decades since his house was built — even though he had insurance and cash in the bank before the storm. But his land alone is still valuable, so he's selling it to pay for a new life somewhere more affordable.

The Keys economy has taken plenty of hits since the storm. Tourism is down, destroyed homes mean less property tax income and only $600,000 in FEMA money has been deposited so far by the county.

Despite that, Roman Gastesi, the county administrator, said he is confident that Monroe has enough money to handle the next hurricane.

For one thing, the taxes and fees from the many people (like Lockard) selling their property are offsetting the loss of property tax revenue to the county from 1,500 homes that were destroyed and lost value. The county property appraiser is projecting at least 5 percent growth in property values next year, in part because of the replacement of cheaper homes in places like Big Pine with newer, more expensive houses.

The county also took out a $40 million line of credit. So far it's used about $29 million, and Gastesi said Monroe has such good credit it can always take out another loan.

The county applied for $34 million in FEMA reimbursement, Gastesi said. So far it's received $600,000, with another $2.2 million on the way soon from the state, through which the money flows. Overall, FEMA says it has given the state $21.4 million earmarked for Monroe. Statewide, FEMA estimates that Irma recovery projects will cost more than $333 million.

Assurances from officials that the island chain is prepared for the season aside, residents are still wary.

Mike Austin, 57, a retired middle school teacher from Northeast Ohio, said he and his wife anxiously watched Subtropical Storm Alberto form and churn in the Gulf of Mexico days before the "official" start to hurricane season.

On Thursday, he was outside his Key Largo home kneeling on a car floor mat loosening the rusted lug nuts on his boat trailer. Next up on his storm preparation list: trimming the three coconut palms that dot his property, checking on his generator, restocking water and looking over his box of hurricane supplies. His wife, Sue, is already thinking about what valuables and sentimental items go in the car

"I'm not going to argue when they say it's time to go," he said. "It's the price you pay of living in a beautiful area like this — or the risk you take, I should say."

The dark side of that risk is still visible in the Avenues, the center of the damage in Big Pine Key. Blue tarps abound. Here and there, properties have tents set up with sleeping bags and belongings inside next to destroyed homes.

Like Lockard's place, many of the lots have "for sale" signs.

The stacks of ruined cars, trashed mobile homes and soggy, mold-furred pieces of home siding no longer line the roads. Most of the ruined homes have been demolished. On some lots, concrete pillars have sprouted — hinting at the higher elevation home that will soon follow. On others, the carcasses of ruined homes still stand untouched.

Lynn Ackiss, whose family owns the former trailer park turned FEMA trailer lot on Big Pine, said she's down to 14 tenants of the original 20 trailer households. All but one of the six families that left have moved out of the Keys because they couldn't find affordable housing.

If another hurricane comes, Ackiss said she expects her residents to evacuate and not return.

"With everything they've been through, they'll just pack up and head out," she said.

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