13 Nov Boot Key Harbor After Irma
To say I’ve gotten a lot of inquiries about how Boot Key Harbor is doing post-Irma and whether boaters should come here this winter would be an understatement.
So here’s the current situation, as of November 12, 2017 — two months after BKH was hit by the nasty NE eyewall of Category 4 Hurricane Irma. The info is accurate to the best of my knowledge and I’ll update as I learn of changes.
THE HARBOR IS OPEN
Yes, Boot Key Harbor is open for new boats. Mooring balls are still in the process of being inspected and repaired where necessary, and the office says you “use them at your own risk.” We’re on the same mooring ball we were on during the storm; it’s blowing 25 today and I haven’t heard of anyone having a problem with their mooring. But no guarantees!
I’d guesstimate that the mooring field is about 75% full at present, with several new boats arriving every day. You may want to contact the office as to how full it is and, if it’s full, what anchoring options exist close to when you plan to arrive.
CONTACTING THE OFFICE — IMPORTANT!
The marina phone is STILL down — if you are in VHF range, call them on channel 16; otherwise email the office at email@example.com
Both the west entrance channel and Sister’s Creek are open, but both are missing some markers. For the west entrance, hug the greens (used to be hug the reds, so this is a change).
In general, for either entrance, it’s best to come in near high tide, while it is still rising. Go slowly and watch the depthsounder closely. If you draw close to 6 foot, call any of the tow operators — Tow Boat US, Sea Tow or Tow Boat One — on VHF 16 to get more specific up-to-date info (things change as more and more debris is removed).
Anywhere that you see a fender floating or a pink/red marker, assume it’s marking underwater debris and steer clear.
As always at this time of year, there are a lot of crab and lobster traps out across all of Florida Bay and in Hawk Channel. Keep a sharp lookout!
INSIDE THE HARBOR
The mooring field is pretty well clear of debris and sunken boats but always watch out for “floating fenders” and pink/red markers — these are put out whenever anything new is found.
Check out the diagram of the shoals in my previous post on Things to Know Before Entering BKH. They’re still in the same locations and still not marked as well as they could be!
City Marina (the official name of the Boot Key Harbor mooring field) is up and running pretty normally. The only big change is that the outer dinghy dock no longer exists (well, the pieces can be found strewn around) and the floating dock is now entirely for dinghies.
Important: treat the entire harbor area as a no-wake slow speed zone and the area near the dinghy dock as idle speed only. This is not only courteous to other boaters but critically important to the manatees in the harbor (yes, they’re back!) who can’t move very fast to get out of your way.
All marina services are up except for the phone system:
- Shower rooms
- Workshop is open
- Credit cards are accepted
- Mail delivery (and all parcel services such as UPS, Fed Ex, DHL)
- Vehicle parking
- Bike parking
- Wifi at the office (last week I was told it was working, 11/13 I hear it’s not . . . but free wifi is available at the library, a 10-minute walk away)
Most businesses are open, some with limited hours or services. To name a few things important to cruisers:
- Buses are running on schedule, as is Keys Shuttle to the Miami and Ft. Lauderdale airports.
- Taxis are available — $5 will take you anywhere on the island. Bob Narley taxi is not open and the others do not have as large a fleet as in the past. Combine this with more people needing taxis because of losing cars in the storm and sometimes there’s a wait.
- Publix is open; Winn-Dixie is not.
- West Marine, Home Depot, Specialty Hardware and NAPA are all open and well-stocked.
- Sea-Tek (aka “Alex”) and SALT marine services are open.
- Most restaurants and bars are open. Many have limited menus and service might be slow. Most of the city’s “affordable housing” was wiped out in the storm, pre-Irma employees moved away when they couldn’t find housing, almost no one is moving here right now because of the housing crunch and consequently many places are short-staffed. (The upside to this is if you’re looking to refill the cruising kitty and have a boat to live on, there are plenty of opportunities.)
- Yoga in the park next door is happening one day a week (Emily, the instructor, lost her house). Hopefully, it will soon be back to three days a week.
- The hospital is open for emergency services, it is expanding its “openness” almost daily.
- Doctors’, dentists’, and clinics can be found but it’s sometimes easier (and faster to get an appointment) to go to Key Largo or Key West for services (this is one area that is changing almost daily as to what is and isn’t open).
- Both local vets are open and able to process pets’ paperwork for the Bahamas as well as regular and emergency care.
- All cell phone services are up.
- Snorkel, dive and fishing charters are generally up and running.
- Boatyards are pretty full but again, things change daily. Call before assuming you can arrange a haulout here.
Okay, the storm hit the local workers disproportionately hard. Most didn’t live in new hurricane-resistant housing and lost pretty much everything. They don’t have a lot of savings to fall back on. And it’s expensive to live in the Keys. So please, be kind, understand if they are short-staffed (remember, your server is one who stayed to help rebuild!) and tip generously.
HOTELS AND MOTELS
If you are going to have guests coming in, it’s going to be tough to get them a room. First, it’s always hard “in season” — that is, winter. Second, a LOT of people lost their homes or had them severely damaged and are now living in hotels and motels. Third, all the recovery workers (clean up crews, rebuilding contractors, insurance adjusters, and on and on) that are in town have to stay somewhere.
Key West and all its attractions had a lot less damage than Marathon. Pretty much all the “touristy” things to do there are open, as are the buses to take you there. HOWEVER, note that you’ll drive through the very hard hit “Ground Zero” area of Big Pine Key. It still looks like a war zone there. Please be respectful and don’t act like it’s a sightseeing event as people are trying to clean things up and rebuild their lives.
HOW THE HARBOR AND CITY LOOK
Those of us who came back right after Hurricane Irma think things are looking a lot better now. Those who are just arriving are shocked at the devastation, destruction, and debris.
Both groups are right.
There has been a lot of progress made, but there is still a long, long way to go.
You’ll see “litter” and storm debris piles everywhere. There’s a lot less of both than there was but it’s still astounding to newcomers. And yes, we’re working to clean it all up and we appreciate any help you can give. If you are waiting somewhere, pick up whatever trash you see — I haven’t been anywhere that I didn’t find some, particularly small pieces of plastic. If you’re walking, take at least a grocery bag and fill it. Little by little, we’ll get it done.
Most of the sunken boats have been raised and removed. But tens (maybe 100 or more) still litter the mangroves. Some look like they’ll be able to be repaired; others are clearly totaled.
We’re having weekly clean up days for the water and mangrove areas, and many people are doing more on their own. If you’re going to be here, we’d love to have you join in!
You’ll meet people both around the marina office and in town who lost their boats, houses, cars, jobs. Most are surprisingly upbeat but you’ll see them having bad days too. Dealing with FEMA and insurance is not pretty. Have compassion. Just listening to their stories goes a long way.
BOTTOM LINE — PLEASE COME!
The Keys’ entire economy is based on tourism and boaters are part of that — and boaters put far less strain on local housing than other tourists, so are very welcome.
Things are not perfect but the community spirit is amazing. If you can deal with imperfection, want to pitch in and help, and have an upbeat attitude, you’ll have a wonderful time.
A friend, Mike Tounge, made this video last winter. The sunsets are still every bit as gorgeous! (PS – the background music really adds to it, so be sure you have your volume turned on.)