When Hurricane Donna passed over the Florida Keys seven weeks ago in a terrifying welter of wind and water, it left behind a population stunned, cut off from the mainland, almost helpless. Across the nation, too, it left hundreds of thousands of Americans who knew and loved the Keys wondering whether this year, or even next, they would be able to visit, fish and play there again. This is the question Photographer Richard Meek and I set out to answer last week, for until now the full story of what happened on that thin green line of islands during the night of September 9 has not been told, nor has anyone attempted to assess the damage done and the prospects for reconstruction.
Donna was the worst hurricane to strike the Keys in a quarter century. Here is what the storm did:
?From Rock Harbor to Marathon, over a stretch of 50 miles, the destruction in many areas was as complete as though the islands had been under an air and artillery barrage.
?The Overseas Highway linking the islands to the mainland was broken in five places, with one bridge ripped out entirely and the approaches to others washed away.
?Driven by winds which blew as high as 180 mph, and possibly even 200, successive walls of water up to 12 feet high surged inland, gutting hotels and larger buildings, tearing motel cottages from their foundations, carrying docks, trailers, houseboats and other forms of habitation out into the bays and inlets.
?In the town of Marathon, 80% of all buildings suffered major damage.
?In Islamorada, little more than concrete and stone foundations remained to testify that one of the Keys' most popular fishing centers once stood there.
?Telephone and telegraph lines, power lines and water supplies were disrupted along the entire 50-mile stretch of major damage.
It would seem from this that the Keys would be a long time coming back, and that visitors this winter might seek their favorite vacation spots in vain. But the big news in the Keys today is no longer what Donna did. The big news is how the islanders are winning a race against time in an inspiring work of reconstruction. Many of the facilities the Keys traditionally have offered will be ready in time for the coming season.
The spirit of reconstruction that animates the Keys is felt the moment one leaves the mainland on the Overseas Highway. Moving westward are trucks laden with building materials. Cars and station wagons roll along carrying lumber inside and on top. The trucks of roofing contractors drag their tar tanks behind them. Prime movers hauling storm-battered trailers eastward pass shiny new trailers being moved in to house people while they rebuild their homes. Telephone repairmen roost on new poles like birds. Machines claw at the earth to bury long-line cables. At numerous points along the route smoke columns rise into the bright, tropic sky to mark places where the wreckage and debris of the mighty storm is being collected and burned.