We drove 118 miles before we saw the first and only Key West tour van in Marathon, Florida, unloading its passengers in a near vacant McDonald’s parking lot.
Hours after we left Miami at 7 a.m., I received a text from my co-reporter, Richard Ordonez, stating that he needed to pull over. Since we were 47 miles out from the next town and we had yet to eat, I searched on Google for the nearest restaurants open for breakfast. McDonald’s was the closest out of the five restaurants open.
As I stared at the picture of McDonald’s on my phone, a deep, uneasy pit formed in my stomach. The restaurant shared the same name of the wave pool I near drowned in when I was six years old.
I remember the panic, the water filling my nose and mouth before everything went black. That memory stuck with me even now, deterring me from family trips to the pool, water parks and even Miami Beach.
Now, after 16 years, the only reason I’m near the water again is a Key West follow-up assignment from our magazine, Tropical Diaries.
I never thought that my first trip to the ocean and a tourist paradise would be to report on what hell it had become.
After opening the car door, I suppressed an involuntary gag as the rotten stench of swamp water, dying wood, and moldy furniture permeated the air.
I hadn’t noticed that Ordonez walked over, Fujifilm camera in hand.
“It’s worse than I thought,” he said.
I didn’t know what exactly was worse – the smell, the vacancy, or the forgotten debris that was swept to the side of the road.
Ordonez looked at the closed supermarket behind me. Even with a naked storefront and rusted carts scattered throughout, the Winn-Dixie was in better shape than most of the dilapidated businesses nearby.
We walked into the restaurant, ate our first hot meal of the day, and set off to document what the hurricane and how Key West fared.
Capsized boats, broken appliances and turned-over tractor trailers were swept to the side by clean-up crews. Disaster response teams were parked at every corner, and at every other intersection and road work signs and cones stood in the streets.
In between the states of desolation, the bridges were the only clean stretches of highway that I could experience pre-Irma Keys – distant islands in crystal blue waters.
This piece originally appeared on Tropical Diaries, a project headed by FIU Journalism Professor Allan Richards. See their work here.