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Still Rebuilding In The Keys, Almost Two Years After Irma

Rachel Stephens has been working on re-building her family's Grassy Key hotel for almost two years.
Nancy Klingener
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Almost two years ago, Hurricane Irma destroyed or did major damage to more than 4,000 homes in the Florida Keys. It also devastated many hotels, especially in the Middle and Upper Keys.

Most have reopened, backed by corporations that could put serious money into rebuilding properties like the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada and Hawk's Cay on Duck Key.

It's a lot harder for family-owned properties, like the White Sands Inn on Grassy Key run by Rachel Stephens with her mom.

She evacuated for Irma. The next day, before she was able to return, she was already getting reports that the hotel's first floor had been washed out, with a hole punched in the front wall.

That opening is still there, but now it's a feature.

The door to the front corner unit used to be on the side. It was already one of her most popular units.

"Now they have a larger door facing the ocean," Stephens said. She's planning French doors that will look out on a spectacular view of the sandy beach and subtropical Atlantic, steps away.

Right after the storm, Stephens was hoping to reopen in months but the damage was too severe and all the hurdles were taking too long: Insurance. Permitting. Contractors.

She's had to sell part of the property and take out an interest-only loan. And she's sold some of her short-term rental rights that regulate how many rooms a hotel can have. 

These rights are valuable in the Keys, where development is under tight limits. She brought in much-needed money by selling some of her rights, but It means the White Sands Inn will be a different hotel when she can reopen it.

"So I'm going to try and when we re-do it, do it more like a small boutique," she said. "I'm selling to one of the largest resorts, these rights, and I'm going to be the smallest one in the area."

The White Sands Inn wasn't that big to begin with — only seven units. Now it will be four.

The hotel had a lot of regulars, who would come back year after year, reserving their spot for next time when they checked out.

"When you came, everybody would get a hug, if we knew you before and remember what you did when you were here last time. So it's like visiting friends, or family," she said.

She still hears from those regulars who want to know how "their" unit is doing. But she says she just doesn't have the mental energy to engage like she used to. She used to take every call and talk for up to an hour about what was going on.

"But I just can't talk about the destruction and the rebuilding process to everybody anymore because I don't know. I don't know until somebody shows up here and does it," she said.

Instead of dealing with guests, she spends her time dealing with building permits and insurance adjusters, and working another job.

"I might not do anything for the hotel tomorrow and then I've been bartending up at the bar here on Grassy Key and that's how I make my ends meet right now," she said.

Stephens is hoping some of those regulars will come back when she does reopen. But she knows they'll be coming back to a different place. The White Sands Inn isn't the same. Neither is Marathon. That's been part of adjustment over the last two years.

"A lot, a lot of people left after the hurricane. A lot of friends, a lot of businesspeople in Marathon, a lot of businesses didn't open back up. It's still not the same and I don't think it will ever be the same," she said.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.