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Big Pine, Hit Hard By Hurricane Irma, Comes Together To Cope With Coronavirus

The Keys Vineyard Church on Big Pine has been holding twice-weekly drive-through giveaways of supplies and kits with materials to make meals for four people.
Kurt Doerfel
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Big Pine Key was the epicenter for Hurricane Irma's impact on the Florida Keys back in September of 2017. The eye of the category four storm went just west of the island. People there are still struggling to put their lives back together — and now they're coping with the coronavirus.

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Seeing empty streets because of COVID-19 is strange for everyone — but especially Tommy Ryan. He's a retired New York City firefighter who now lives on Big Pine Key. He's self-isolating because his lungs were damaged when he responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center.

"It's very similar to what it was after 9/11. The streets were empty, it was quiet, nobody was on the road. It's a very eerie feeling," Ryan said.

Big Pine Key is about 30 miles up the Overseas Highway from Key West. For what you'd pay for a tiny apartment in Key West, you can get a house with a yard on Big Pine. And it's got a familiar feel for Ryan, the retired first responder.

"Big Pine has always been known as a blue collar key. We have the police officers, the firefighters, the teachers, the service workers that work in Key West, that work in Marathon," he said.

Retired firefighter Tommy Ryan spent all his savings fixing up his house after Hurricane Irma - and he's still fighting with insurance companies.
The Florida Channel
Retired firefighter Tommy Ryan spent all his savings fixing up his house after Hurricane Irma - and he's still fighting with insurance companies.

Big Pine has long been known as home to the adorable, endangered Key deer, found nowhere else in the world. Then, in September of 2017, it became known for something else: taking a direct hit from Hurricane Irma.

"I think it was about 19 months that we ended up being out of our house, living in a trailer next to the house. It was an unbelievable ordeal," he said. He's still fighting with insurance companies about payments from the storm. And he says a lot of people are in tougher spots.

"I went through all my savings trying to fix my house up. I'm lucky I have a pension that will see me through this but there's a lot of people on Big Pine who immediately are hurting," he said.

If there's one saving grace to the island's experience with Irma, it's that Big Pine's good samaritans have already started working together—and they already know how to stand up an operation to provide food and basic supplies. Lisa Miletti is one of those people.

Read more : Here's Where You Can Find Free Food During The Pandemic

When the coronavirus hit, she shut down her food truck that sold gourmet egg rolls. Now she's making meals to go which she hands out at the parking lot of the local chamber of commerce.

"The experience from Irma — everybody has their connections together all the way up and down the Keys, from Key Largo to Key West, to say 'Hey look, this is what we did last time, let's work together, let's get it done.' "

Miletti's meals are grab-and-go, which is especially important for people who haven't finished rebuilding from the storm.

"There's a ton of people who still don't have a kitchen, you know? A way to put a lot of things together," she said.

Volunteers prepare and distribute grab-and-go meals on Big Pine Key.
Credit Lisa Miletti
The Florida Channel
Volunteers prepare and distribute grab-and-go meals on Big Pine Key.

Up the road from Miletti's site, more Irma veterans are distributing food now. The Keys Vineyard Church served as a staging area and clearinghouse for volunteers after the storm Now they're doing drive-through giveaways twice a week with supplies like paper towels, toilet paper, pasta - and meal kits for four. A chef who's a member of the church posts a video on how to prepare the food.

Steve Lawes is the pastor at Keys Vineyard. He says that even though services are online and the distribution is drive-through, the personal contact still matters. Maybe even more now.

"A lot of people will come in and see us and they'll begin to cry just because it's so good to see somebody. So we've also set up in the lot a prayer station where, after they get their supplies if they want — they don't have to — but they can drive around and there's people there that will — they stay in their cars — we stay outside their cars and ask how they're doing and pray for them," he said.

They used the drive through model for Easter, creating communion packets that people could open inside their cars. "The contact — the safe distant contact — is so important," he said. "So we were figuring out what could we do to see some faces and wave and let people know we're going to get through this."

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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.