For Florida Keys Residents, Home Was the Ultimate Getaway. Then Irma Hit.

And yet: “I’m going to stay here the rest of my life,” said Bill Cope, 64, who sheltered in the Keys all storm long, and planned to do the same during future hurricanes. “This is my home, and I love working here, and I like the people who are here. I’ll go to the shelter, but I’ll stay.”


Mr. Cope is originally from Virginia. He moved here 12 years ago, he said, to get sober.

They all have a story like that, the people who have chosen to make lives here at the literal end of the road. More and more, as seas rise and spill into coastal cities, property owners who signed up for the water views but not the flooding are being forced to recalculate the risks of inclement weather. But the conchs, as the people of the Keys call themselves, have always had a relationship with extremity.

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Dan Mitchie of Marathon, Fla., looked over the extensive damage to boats in his neighborhood on Tuesday.

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Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Not all were as stubborn as Mr. Cope or as cool as Mr. Neurath. Thousands of people evacuated the Keys before the hurricane, giving into the begging of local officials. Even for those who remained, some because they lacked the resources to flee, Irma still had more than enough power to rattle.

“Until you go through something like this, you just don’t know,” said Daniel Rossler, who rode out the storm in a concrete building in Tavernier Key with his wife. “I love it here. But I might leave to go to some other part of the country. I just don’t know.”

Mr. Rossler arrived from Chicago 22 years ago and works in construction, chasing the sun, the sand and the cocktails. “Everyone that lives down here wants to be off the mainland,” he said.

The Keys are happy to take them. Though it has been a destination for runaways from the continent it dangles from for centuries — when there was easy money to be made in shipwreck salvaging, and even before that — development has brought steady growth to the archipelago in recent decades. Some people come to get off the grid, camping in the mangrove forests or living on sailboats. More wealthy people are claiming real estate in Key West, the island most beloved of tourists, of Ernest Hemingway and of spring breakers, pushing up rents for the rest.

On Tuesday, the billboards on the way south on the Overseas Highway, which links the Keys to each other and to the mainland, stood ripped up by the wind. What remained of one of them read: “Come as you are.”

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“The problem is, it’s one of those places that’s too beautiful for its own good,” said Carl Hiaasen, the author of many canonical Florida books and a former Keys resident. “The rational part of your brain is telling you this is probably not an ideal place to be in August and September, but the romantic part of your brain is saying, ‘God, it’s gorgeous — let’s go sit on the beach.’”

Longtimers become veteran readers of the meteorologist’s report. The lead-up to a big storm is powered by practicalities as much as fear, Mr. Hiaasen said. The commercial fishermen where he used to live would tie their boats in the mangrove forest to protect them from the storm. Even those who evacuated tended not to go far, hoping to be among the first to come back.

On Tuesday, evacuees still shut out of the islands scrabbled at every piece of news about unheard-from friends, family, boats and houses. Rescue teams like the Federal Emergency Management Agency crew from Los Angeles checked on those who had stayed behind.

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Chris Dupertius, a FEMA rescue specialist from California, searches Big Pine Key, Fla., on Tuesday.

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Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Many of them were reckoning with what they had almost lost — or did lose.

Dan Mitchie, who grew up in the Keys, went to check on a retired boat captain in Marathon who had stayed through the storm in his mobile home. On the way, he saw a naked man on his back, dead in the road. He and a deputy sheriff covered the body with a plastic sail cover.

For those who had stayed, or those just returning, there was an announcement on the Keys radio station on Monday: Baby’s Coffee near Key West was giving away free brew.

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The owners, Gary and Olga Teplitsky, were offering not just coffee, but also cold water, snacks and anything else people needed. Mr. Teplitsky was bagging up T-shirts and hats that people who had lost all their belongings to the storm surge might need. They refused to take any money.

One of the visitors was Tom Bordovsky, who came by to drop off star fruit that had fallen from his tree. He thought maybe some hungry Keys residents might like it.

“The community is suffering,” said Mr. Teplitsy, a New York transplant who opened the shop in 1991. “It’s what you do.”

Barbara Roman, 41, who lives near Marathon, said she did not leave because after 25 years in the Keys, she got tired of the false alarms.

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This time, she regretted it.

“I have been here for three storms, and it’s threats, threats, threats,” she said. Then she thought it over. “I stayed because I was being hardheaded.”

At the high school where she had sought shelter, some holdouts had arrived as the winds were shrieking at 45 miles per hour.

“They were in denial,” she said. “Or really brave.”


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