September 18, 2017 at 7:34 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Key West residents allowed to return home after Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma damaged a monument in Key West, Fla., that marks the southernmost point in the continental U.S. (Photo courtesy of Larry Blackburn)

Authorities on Sunday began to allow residents of Key West and the lower Florida Keys who evacuated ahead of Hurricane Irma to return home.

Former Monroe County Mosquito Commissioner Steve Smith — who evacuated to Orlando with his husband — told the Washington Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from Key West that Irma’s storm surge did not flood his home that is less than a block from the beach.

Smith, who returned to Key West on Sunday, said utility crews have restored power to roughly 70 percent of the island and supermarkets and other stores have reopened. He also told the Blade the gay guesthouses “are getting themselves cleaned up.”

“The clean up is going remarkably well, considering this is a little island,” said Smith. “You can drive down just about every street. They’re not blocked.”

“There are piles of debris everywhere,” he added. “A lot of trees blew down.”

Aaron Huntsman, co-manager of Aqua, a gay nightclub on Key West’s Duval Street, lives with his husband on Stock Island, which is directly east of Key West.

Huntsman said his home did not flood during Irma, even though its storm surge inundated the island on which it is located. He nevertheless described the hurricane as a “freight train,” noting he thought it was going to destroy his home’s roof.

“It just kept going and going and going,” said Huntsman, who, along with his husband, are among the couples who successfully challenged Florida’s constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. “That storm was huge.”

Huntsman said trees fell in Aqua’s patio and the garden bar of New Orleans House, a gay guesthouse that is less than a block south of his nightclub on Duval Street. He told the Blade there is no significant damage to any of the island’s gay and lesbian bars and clubs.

“The bars are grilling food and the locals are bringing stuff in,” noted Huntsman. “People come, get their drink, bring a bag of FEMA ice.”

Hurricane Irma caused tree damage at New Orleans House, an all-male gay resort in Key West, Fla. (Photo courtesy of Larry Blackburn)

Irma made landfall on Cudjoe Key, which is roughly 20 miles east of Key West, on Sept. 10 with winds of 130 mph. The Category 4 hurricane washed out portions of U.S. 1, which is the only road to the mainland in Miami-Dade County, and caused widespread damage throughout the Florida Keys.

Smith told the Blade he saw gas station awnings “tipped over and blown away” and part of a house that was “very shattered” when he drove through Big Pine Key, which is roughly 30 miles east of Key West, on Sunday. He also saw motorhomes on nearby Bahia Honda Key flipped over and boats that had “become dislodged” during the storm.

“It’s sobering,” said Smith. “It lets you totally realize the force of this storm.”

Smith also noted he saw people offering hot meals, ice and bottles of ice water along U.S. 1. He told the Blade that gas stations, propane companies and supermarkets are also providing free water, propane and water to local residents.

“People are stepping up,” said Smith.

Hurricane Maria threatens storm-ravaged Caribbean islands

Irma caused widespread destruction in Barbuda, St. Barts, St. Martin, Anguilla, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos, Cuba and portions of the southeastern Bahamas before it made landfall in Florida.

Alturi, an organization that seeks to promote further engagement on global LGBT and intersex issues, and the Rustin Fund for Global Equality have created a fund to help Irma’s LGBT victims in the Caribbean. The groups are raising funds for the Jamaica-based Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, which provides “services directly to and on behalf of Caribbean populations who are especially vulnerable to HIV infection or often forgotten in access to treatment and healthcare programs.”

Irma damaged the Centro Comunitario de Cultura, an LGBT community center in the Cuban town of Santo Domingo that operates independently of Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Mariela Castro who spearheads LGBT-specific issues as director of the country’s National Center for Sexual Education.

Victor Manuel Dueñas, who founded the community center, told the Blade over the weekend that local residents and members of the LGBT community need clothing, shoes and other items after the hurricane. Facebook on Monday said an employee mistakenly “deleted” a message Mariela Castro posted onto her Facebook page that contained information about how her supporters could contribute to the Cuban government’s hurricane relief efforts.

The Trans Disaster Relief Fund has also been established to help trans, intersex and genderqueer people impacted by Irma and Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall last month on the Texas Gulf Coast and inundated large swaths of Houston and surrounding areas.

Dueñas, Huntsman and Smith all expressed concern about Hurricane Maria, which is just east of the central Lesser Antilles.

The Category 4 hurricane with winds of 130 mph is expected to make landfall in Dominica, an island country that is between the French territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique, on Monday night. Maria is forecast to reach the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico later in the week.

“Fortunately, we didn’t get a direct hit with Irma, but it will be a tough one now with Maria,” Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, a Puerto Rican LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade on Monday from the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. “It will hit us as a Category 4 with winds of 150. We haven’t seen this for almost a century. We’re preparing for the worst, hoping for the best.”

Hurricane Irma, gay news, Washington Blade

Hurricane Irma’s storm surge inundated areas of Key West, Fla., on Sept. 10, 2017, when it made landfall in the Florida Keys. Local residents are watching Hurricane Maria, which is approaching the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, closely. (Photo courtesy of Larry Blackburn)

Maria is not expected to impact the Florida Keys. Local residents nevertheless continue to follow the hurricane closely.

“That’s a little too close for comfort,” Huntsman told the Blade. “It’s giving all of us post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Karen Ocamb contributed to this report.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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