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FLORIDA KEYS (CBSMiami) – A year ago, South Florida was dealing with Hurricane Irma and its aftermath. Flooding, power outages, and mass amounts of people fleeing the path of the storm.
Many of those who left were evacuated from the Florida Keys where recovery is a slow going process.

Amidst debris whipped up by Hurricane Irma sits a mango tree on Big Pine Key. The mangled tree is clearly bruised and battered.

For the first time in years, this season the tree did not produce any mangos.  Gilberto and Cheryl Suarez are okay with that. After all, the mango tree saved their lives. Gilberto laughs at the thought of it.

He raises his finger in the air and proclaims, “Thank goodness for the mango tree!”

It was Father’s Day. Gilberto was reaching for mangos for a family gathering.  He lost his footing.  His son, Gil Suarez II explains it led to a whole sequence of unfortunate events.

“He fell.  Broke his hip, shattered his wrist, congestive heart failure the next day. They air lifted him out of there.”

Suarez Sr., 85 years old, would spend weeks at Mt. Sinai Hospital before going to rehab.

On September 10th, Hurricane Irma, a powerful category four hurricane, ripped across his home on Big Pine Key.

Because he had rehab, Mr. and Mrs. Suarez were not home.  Rather they were with their son in Coral Springs. Suarez’s son Gil calls it luck.

The Suarez family were teachers in the Florida Keys for much of lives.  They bought the home on Big Pine Key and raised a family.

Over 30 years, no matter what storm threatened they usually stayed put.

“All the storms that came through, they only left for one storm,” his son Gil recalled.

“I’m glad we were not there,” Gilberto Sr. now says. That might be an understatement. The day after the hurricane passed there was little to no information coming out of the Florida Keys. Communications had been cut off.

CBS4’s David Sutta and Photographer Mitch Cuba rode out the storm in Marathon.

Within hours of the storm passing they managed to make it into Big Pine Key.  But with telephone lines and roadways a mess they would have to drive to Florida City to broadcast.

Their reports from the lower Keys were some of the first to be broadcast.  Many of the video and images taken were shared on social media.

Images of Key Deer roaming the debris along US1 went viral with more than two million views in 24 hours.

For the Suarez family though it was the video of their home that would shake them to their core.  Gil remembers seeing it for the fist time.

“I woke up the next morning and I was looking at Facebook like normal and I saw the video,” he said.

Nine months later he still is emotional about that moment. He wipes away tears.

“I was like wow.  I couldn’t believe it.”

He immediately shared it with his siblings and parents.  All of them were shocked.

The video of what was the Suarez home is dramatic.  In it you see the smoldering remains of what was an elevated home. There are just concrete stilts left.

Everything else is charred, reduced to a pile of ash. There are remnants of burned cars, presumably parked below the home before the storm.

The Suarez neighbor’s home burned down too.  It was clear the fire department had not responded.

The fire burned uncontrolled and reduced the homes to ash.

Yet somehow, for some unexplained reason, the fire stopped at the edge of both properties, thankfully not taking out the rest of the block.

For the Suarez family, the fire was heartbreaking.

“You have your heart there. You have all your belongings. My parents to lose everything it was hard,” Gil recalls.

The report from Palmetto Avenue was one of the first reports from the Keys.  It was by sheer chance CBS4 turned onto their street.

Gilberto Senior still gets emotional talking about it too.

“It was sad. It was very sad,” he said. “I work so hard as a teacher to save the money to build it, to pay for building my home where I raised my children, and they had nothing.  All gone.”

Nine Months Later

The Suarez family was not alone.

For so many who live in this paradise, the risk had finally caught up to them.

Marty Senterfitt, the Director for Monroe Emergency Management had been on the job for just two years when Irma blew through. He said it changed things for a lot of people.

“I think for the people who have been through this, this is one of those life experiences. I’m not sure the people who went through the storm will ever truly be over it,” Senterfitt said.

Sutta met Senterfitt on the Avenues in Big Pine Key. The area saw six to eight feet of storm surge wash over it.

It was clear as they walked the community that nine months after the hurricane, much of the Lower Keys is still struggling.

Senterfitt is quick to point out, “This is Big Pine but this damage goes on down the Keys for another 20 miles.”

After all this time, he says, those lucky to have an insurance check are not much further along than those without.  The hardest thing to come by in the Keys is a contractor.

“They are being put on waiting lists of up to two-three years, and the whole time they are living in a travel trailer in their driveway.  And they are just waiting for this misery to end,” Senterfitt explained.

The further south you travel in the Keys the more travel trailers you find.  On the outside homes that seem perfectly fine.

“Mold has become the worst enemy of the Florida Keys,” Senterfitt said.

Some residents blame Senterfitt for that. After Irma passed many were kept over a week from returning home.

The Emergency Manager understands their frustrations but points out there was no communications, no fuel, no power, and no water after Irma.

He adds they would have added to the problem rather than solution.  As the warm days passed after Irma, many exposed homes cultivated mold and mildew.

By the time residents reached it, it was too late.  It explains why you will see thousands of people living in trailers, even outside homes that seem perfectly fine.

With a new hurricane season upon the Florida Keys, county administrators have new concerns. Thousands of residents who would normally have stayed in their home for a minor tropical storm or even category one storm are now living in trailers.

“Even a tropical storm is going to create a much greater hazard for us in the Florida Keys because we’ve got people that are in such at risk dwellings,” Senterfitt said.

If a storm approaches, regardless of intensity, Senterfitt is hinting he may need to evacuate more people than in years past.

Lessons From Irma

Irma taught many lessons for Monroe County.  First, the electrical main lines took a direct hit from a category 4 storm and survived.

“We are turning a corner here.  We are learning how to build appropriately.  We still have a ways to go,” Senterfitt said.

Monroe also learned the process for returning home post storm needs to change.

Senterfitt is now rolling out a survivor-training course.  Those who take it will get to return first.

“They come in almost as a responder rather than a civilian,” Senterfitt told CBS4.

The biggest change Senterfitt sees thought is that he believes the Conch way, a resilience to ride out a storm no matter what, is changing.  He stands over the rubble of what was a waterfront home.

“You live on a property like this and you say wow, look how close the water is, with a positive connotation,” he said. “After Irma you look at it and with a certain level of fear in your voice you say wow, look at how close the water is.  It changed your outlook.  It changes your reality of what you are facing here.”

Leaving The Keys

For many, reality is too much to bear.  It is estimated between 10-20% of Keys residents have left since Irma.  Some left immediately.

Many have been throwing in the towel because the rebuilding process is just too much.

On Palmetto Avenue in Big Pine Key, the Suarez’s neighbor is a good example of how tough things have become.  His home burned down. He is living in a trailer in the driveway.  It’s hooked up to power, water and sewer.

A temporary home that seems to have become all too permanent in a way.  The insurance check came in.  It paid off the mortgage.

Now he spends his days looking for financing, for engineers, for contractors, to rebuild.

However, the list of to-do’s is long, and seemingly getting longer by the day.

The Keys Strong motto lines business and bumper stickers in the area.

The support is nice but the work is hard.  You can see the exhaustion in his face.  It is hardly the paradise that brought him and so many others here years ago.

Gilberto Suarez is one of the many who left.

“It was impossible for us to go back,” he now says.

With just a suitcase of clothes to their name, they recently bought a condo in Tamarac.  Gilberto’s wife Cheryl loves it.

“It’s a nice retirement community. We just feel at home here.  We play shuffleboard twice a day, we walk.”

While they are more than 100 miles away, the conch is still very much alive in their home.  There is a conch flag by the door. Keys books and art dot the condo. Cheryl admits it’s not the same, but it’s home.

“We miss the water,” she said. “But we have the lake here. We have our plants. So the substitutions are very upscale for us.”

The family had a house warming party.  Friends and family came from all over, donating furniture, kitchen supplies, and essentially everything you need to start a new life.

The Suarez’s are starting over thanks to the generosity of so many.

The children are now discussing plans to one day rebuild the family home.

“It’s not if, it’s  when,” Gil junior says.  He envisions a home where the kids and grandkids can connect.

Perhaps they will eat mangos from the mango tree that saved Grandpa and Grandma’s life too.  Gilberto Senior tears up at the thought.  He would love that.  He smiles and tells his son, “Tell the kids, see that tree, be careful!”

To this day they do not know what started the fire in the Suarez home. They only know the fire started after the storm had passed.

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