Hemingway house cats supplied the grace, staff the courage
KEY WEST, TAVERNIER––Having famously remarked that “Courage is grace under pressure,” and almost as famously doted upon the six-toed cat Snowflake, also called Snowball, who roamed his Key West home during his years there, 1933-1939, the author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) would have appreciated the calm at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum as Hurricane Irma raced across the Caribbean.
The whole of the Florida Keys were under an evacuation order as Irma approached. Irma had slowed from a Category 5 hurricane when it hit Cuba, with wind gusts of more than 180 miles per hour, to “only” Category 3, with wind gusts of 120 miles per hour, but remained the biggest storm ever measured in the Atlantic and adjacent waters.
House survived hurricanes before
Despite all that, Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum executive director Dave Gonzales, 72, and general manager Jacqui Sands decided that the safest place they could be with the 54 cats descended from Hemingway’s cat was in the Hemingway house itself.
The cats and eight other staff agreed. Built in 1851, featuring 18-inch-thick limestone walls, the Hemingway house has withstood countless previous hurricanes, including four others that at one point reached Category 5.
Won bet against nature
Equipped with three generators to keep the electricity going and ample food and water, the Hemingway house cats and staff won their bet against nature.
Mostly bypassing Key West, the full force of Hurricane Irma struck farther up the Keys. The Hemingway house easily withstood a three-foot storm surge, a fifth the height of the surge farther north. No cats and none of the 10 people who stayed with them were injured. No standing water remained on the grounds, according to early media reports.
Florida Keys SPCA evacuated
The Florida Keys SPCA did evacuate from Key West ahead of Irma, fostering the resident animals to a variety of volunteers.
The condition of the Florida Keys SPCA building following Irma remains unknown.
Because of extensive storm damage, Florida Highway 1, the only way in or out of Key West other than by boat or aircraft, the Florida Keys SPCA may remain closed for some time.
Foster coordinator Lindsey Thompson asked the fostering volunteers to stay in communication as best they could, until the animals can be returned to the FKSPCA.
“We do not yet have information on the state of the shelter locations and do not expect to for the next day or two,” Thompson said.
Dolphin Research Center was first back online
The Dolphin Research Center, on Grassy Key, closed to prepare for Hurricane Irma on September 5, 2017. “We have detailed plans in place to care for the dolphins and sea lions,” the DRC posted to Facebook, with a “stay-behind crew to remain at DRC to care for the animals.”
After Hurricane Irma passed, on September 10, 2017, the Dolphin Research Center was the first Florida Keys animal care facility to get back online, if only briefly.
“Much of the Keys are currently without electrical power or cell phone service. Unfortunately, this means we are not receiving updates from our stay-behind crew,” one of the evacuated staff posted to social media.
“We know everyone is anxious for news,” the posting continued. “So are all of us in the DRC family who had to leave the crew and all of the animals. Please know that many of us are also experiencing issues in our evacuation locations which make it a challenge for us” to maintain communications, “but we’re trying.”
Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center in Tavernier closed on September 7, 2017, advising via Facebook that “We are no longer rescuing or receiving any new patients at this time. If you have a concern about an injured wild bird, please feel free to call our emergency hotline and we will give you any advice we can. We will post when we are open and intaking patients again. Thank you and everyone stay safe!”
Rick Trout was “forward observer”
Also in Tavernier, Marine Mammal Conservancy cofounder Rick Trout rode out Hurricane Irma as “forward observer” for ANIMALS 24-7 and hundreds of others who monitored his frequent Facebook postings and videos about conditions in the Keys.
Days before Irma hit, Trout posted that while others evacuated, out of necessity and prudence, he and his family, along with others, would be “staying safe in a real Category 5 hurricane shelter: my home, one of 40+ built after a 1935 hurricane killed over 500 Flagler Railroad workers who almost made it out in an emergency evacuation train that steamed down backward from Miami so it could load and go, but got turned over by a 15-foot surge sweeping bodies throughout Florida Bay,” and consequently rescued no one. Ironically, no one who was actually aboard the train died.
Home built as storm shelter
“If you owned property and lost a family member,” Trout recounted, “the Works Progress Administration and Red Cross brought supplies and workers to build, at no cost, bunker Category 5 shelters anchored into cap rock with cisterns for their basements to collect water and 14-inch-thick concrete walls, with 8-inch roofs, to be the neighborhood shelters for next monster hurricane.
“My place, as it was meant to be, is open and taking locals and pets,” Trout said, lamenting that “The common sense of the Great Depression does not still prevail today.”
Trout expected to shelter “More animals than people, but comfortably 10 folks and their friendly pets or crated pets if necessary.”
The 1935 Labor Day hurricane
Ironically, the unnamed 1935 Category 5 hurricane that hit the Upper Keys, killing more than 70% of the then-residents, was remembered in a September 2, 2017 memorial ceremony––just as the Keys learned that Irma might be coming.
Wrote Ken Kaye of the Florida Sun Sentinel, “The infamous 1935 Labor Day hurricane ‘produced a storm surge of 18 to 20 feet above sea level, knocking down trees and buildings on Matecumbe, Islamorada and other nearby Keys,’” according to Brad Bertelli, curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center in Islamorada.
The 1935 hurricane wrecked the 113-mile Florida Overseas Railroad, built by entrepreneur Henry Flagler (1830-1913). Built largely on trestles and artificial causeways, completed in 1912, the railroad had linked Key West to the Florida mainland. Highway 1, already under construction when the Labor Day hurricane blew up, was built on the more secure remnants of the railroad right-of-way.
“Among those who perished were 259 World War I veterans, who had been building the Overseas Highway and were living in federal rehabilitation camps,” Kaye added.
“In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Hemingway traveled to the Keys to help with the recovery. He ended up writing an angry article entitled, ‘Who Killed the Vets?’ for New Masses magazine. In a letter to his editor, Max Perkins, Hemingway wrote, ‘We made five trips with provisions for survivors to different places but found nothing but dead men to eat the grub.’”
Upper Keys Humane Society
The Upper Keys Humane Society, of Key Largo, evacuated many animals to the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale. The Humane Society of Broward County earlier flew 150 animals to Tony LaRussa’s Animal Foundation to make room for the evacuees.
“Thank you to Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation, Wings of Rescue, Freekibble.com, GreaterGood.org, and the Rescue Bank for making this happen,” the Humane Society of Broward County posted.
The animals remaining at the Upper Keys Humane Society were fostered in Orlando.
“Our whole life is in these trucks”
PBS Newshour reporters Elizabeth Flock and Joshua Barajas documented the exodus of Key Largo residents Tanya Skillman and Mitch Christensen, with their animals.
“Our whole life is in these trucks,” Skillman said. “We brought everything. Our two parrots. Twenty tortoises, in the car. Forty-plus reptiles, snakes, pythons, racers, bearded dragons, in the boat. And some hatchlings. Otherwise everybody would have died. Animals have been our passion our whole life, something that brought us together.”
While Skillman and Christensen were evacuating pets, a photo posted to a Facebook page called “Humans of the Keys” by fishing guide Jack Carlson showing nine roosters and/or hens wrapped in newspapers for evacuation went unexplained, occasioning online speculation as to whether they were a private laying flock, gamecocks, or…?
What about the Key deer?
Posted International Primate Protection League founder Shirley McGreal, while preparing for the possibility that Hurricane Irma might drift toward the IPPL gibbon sanctuary in Summerville, South Carolina, “I am really worried about the plight of the tiny Key deer who live on Big Pine Key in Florida and a few other Keys. I have visited them. They are so beautiful and could get wiped out by Irma. They are an endangered species.
Agreed Rick Trout, “Poor Key deer and other land and some marine mammals need prayers!”
National Key Deer Refuge superintendent Dan Clark told David Goodhue of the Keys Reporter that an assessment of the Key deer population would have to wait until the refuge personnel were authorized to return from evacuation.
“The small deer, whose estimated numbers range from 800 to 1,000, live mostly on Big Pine Key and Little Torch Key,” wrote Goodhue.
“It’s been a traumatic couple of years for the Keys treasures,” Goodhue observed. “First, after a nasty infection by the larvae of a parasitic fly called the screwworm began to infest the population in the fall of 2016. Not only did the screwworm take out a significant portion of the already-sensitive local deer population, it killed the animals slowly and painfully.
“The infestation was finally eliminated after scientists released roughly 124 million sterile screwworm flies to mate with wild flies. The mating process results in eggs that never hatch.”
Ridding the Key deer of screwworm took five months. But the weakened Key deer population was left with lessened ability to recover from a second heavy blow.