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In the Keys, the world turned upside down

ISLAMORADA — Bill Quinn stood shirtless Tuesday morning on the blue concrete slab where his house used to be, surveying the damage.

His was the closest lot to the Atlantic Ocean in the Seabreeze mobile home park, south of U.S. 1 in Islamorada.

The frame to his single-wide mobile home lay adjacent to the slab, exactly parallel, as if neatly placed. The rest of the home, though, was all over, strewn by Hurricane Irma.

"I found my stuff scattered from over there," he pointed with one hand, "to over there," pointing with the other, creating a 90-degree angle.

Quinn, a 48-year-old carpenter, rode out the storm in his neighbor's home, a house on stilts. She let him stay after he agreed to board up her windows while she was in California. Tuesday was the second day he awoke without a home of his own.

"It gets harder to wake up in the morning and look over here," he said. "It's devastating."

• • •

Quinn had been living in Seabreeze for five years before Irma's eye struck the lower Keys midday Sunday.

But his roots there run deeper. His grandfather bought that very mobile home 56 years ago, he said. He remembers vacationing there as a kid, riding his skateboard on the seawall and fishing. He'd catch barracudas, sharks, tarpon, snapper. His favorite was parrotfish, because they'd put up a fight.

"It was like you were deep-sea fishing on the shore," he said.

And he loved swimming in the complex's sea pool growing up, where the lobsters would get humongous. He considered himself luckier than his friends who just had lame fish tanks in their bedrooms.

His uncle inherited the home from his grandfather, both men firefighters. Quinn, too, wore the uniform before retiring from Brevard County Fire Rescue in 2006.

When Quinn's uncle died, the place fell to him. Quinn cleaned it out and then found himself living there full time.

It was a sturdy home, even after decades. It had survived at least four other hurricanes, including Wilma. None had done so much as rip off the siding.

"But this one was the nastiest one of them all," he said.

• • •

Quinn would have evacuated if he hadn't had a safe place to stay.

But his neighbor's home has a designated "hurricane room," which she had been using to store tools, so he felt he could ride it out there.

All Saturday night, as Irma loomed south, Quinn moved his treasures from his home to his neighbor's. Old records, his Cannondale mountain bike, his keyboard and guitar.

He left some of his carpentry equipment, like a compressor and a pressure washer. And his drum set.

He just got too tired.

When he finally laid down to try to sleep, he couldn't.

He just kept thinking, "What the hell is going to happen here?"

The next morning, Irma roared. The wind threw coconuts at the metal shutters. It brought down a palm tree, which snapped on the edge of the concrete roof.

It sounded like every cliche — jet engines, freight trains.

He'd cleared out tools from the hurricane room ahead of time, just in case. And when the tree fell on the roof, he almost locked himself in the bunker.

He calmed his nerves by smoking pot — the medicinal kind — and tinkering on his phone. He had service through the storm, only to lose it when the winds died down.

Occasionally, he'd sneak peeks at his home through a sliver of exposed window.

He grew anxious to see what would be left.

• • •

Stepping outside Sunday night left Quinn shaken.

He spent Monday taking it all in. His bathroom sink, he said, had made it all the way to the highway, about 400 feet.

He had tied his boat to a tree by its motors. One motor was where he left it, but the boat was upside between two mobile homes up the street.

"I can buff that out," he joked on Tuesday.

He kept spotting things.

His living room couch. A piece of his metal roof. A drum and an attached cymbal. An antique diver's helmet, which had washed up in the sand.

He has already looked through the wreckage 10 times for mementos and other items he didn't transfer to his neighbor's house.

"And I'll go through it another 100 times," he said.

• • •

Quinn's home wasn't worse than others. Many homes in Seabreeze were picked up and dropped somewhere else. One had an entire side wall ripped from it, exposing the bedroom and kitchen like a museum exhibit.

Another home was impaled by a dock.

Quinn said he knew this day would come. He compared living on the Keys to riding a motorcycle.

"I'm going to go down one day, but for now, I'm having fun," he said of the mentality.

But he wasn't ready it. They'd been safe for so long.

"I never thought," his voice trailed off.

Elsewhere on the upper Keys — residents were only allowed to travel to mile marker 74, as destruction was heavier on the southern end — boats and jet skis littered the highway. Nearly everything was covered in sand and ocean bottom, which fermented in the September sun. Seaweed blanketed side roads like shag rugs.

Still, Quinn said, he won't be driven away. He envisions a replacement mobile home, "with a loft, maybe a double-wide," back on that blue pad.

Tuesday afternoon, he looked out the French doors from his neighbor's living room, past the palm tree still leaning precariously against the porch, transfixed by the ocean. Until a helicopter flew overhead.

"It's like a war zone," he said. "It's exciting, man. You gotta take it when you can get it."

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @josh_solomon15.

In the Keys, the world turned upside down 09/12/17 [Last modified: Friday, September 15, 2017 2:51pm]
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