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The Keys Reopen For Business

boarded-up storefront with the spraypainted message 'Screw you, Irma. We are Marathon strong!'
Marathon, Fla., Sept. 24, 2017. Photo courtesy the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District.

I plan to do my part to help the Florida Keys recover from Hurricane Irma by scuba diving.

Or maybe snorkeling. Perhaps I’ll make a long-awaited day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, which many consider one of the best snorkeling spots in the U.S., reachable from Key West. It seems like a good time for it.

Whenever I decide on my itinerary, the Florida Keys are officially open for business. And, as the Miami Herald recently reported, Monroe County’s Tourism Development Council got the word out in an unusual way. Instead of trying to make prospective visitors forget that Irma ever happened, the council decided to celebrate the area’s recovery with a video that showed the extensive damage from the storm in detail – and then showcased subsequent recovery efforts. The message: “Yes, we’re not 100 percent back to normal, but we are ready to show you a great time anyway.”

Andy Newman, a council spokesman, said he was inspired by the Gloria Estefan song “Coming Out Of The Dark.” While the 1991 release was originally about Estefan’s recovery from a near-fatal bus accident, the Keys’ post-hurricane blackout and subsequent restoration of power gave the song a new, slightly more literal, resonance. Newman reached out to Estefan Enterprises with his idea for a video, and Estefan allowed the Keys to use her song for free as a way to contribute to the recovery effort.

The county commission also endorsed the Tourism Development Council’s more traditional public relations efforts. The organization began a $1 million advertising campaign in early October, including digital, print, TV and radio spots. Some advertising outlets donated space as a contribution to the ongoing hurricane recovery. These spots do not include images of Irma’s destruction, but provide a more traditional positive message focused on the community’s resilience. “As the sun rises in the Florida Keys, so do we,” one ad read.

The Keys’ recovery stands in stark contrast to a lot of the Caribbean. The British Virgin Islands plan to reopen to visitors Nov. 1, while places like St. Martin and Anguilla don’t expect to be truly ready for tourists until 2018 at the earliest. This is not to mention Puerto Rico, which is in a league of its own as far as misery is concerned.

I don’t mean to disparage these other places by praising the Keys. After all, they have a lot of advantages. They are much closer to the mainland – close enough to be connected by road, meaning the Keys don’t rely on supplies arriving exclusively by air or sea. Recovery personnel, as well as supplies, could reach the Keys faster and more easily. A lot more of the Keys’ property is likely covered by insurance – significant, since the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that about a quarter of houses in the Keys were destroyed and another 65 percent sustained major damage. (Less than 1 percent of Puerto Rico’s housing units were covered by the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program, The Wall Street Journal reported in September.) And the Keys started with a much better infrastructure, one that is more resilient and easier to get back into service.

The Keys’ tourism council has been wise to recognize the area’s economic dependence on getting visitors to come back as soon as possible, so tourism dollars can help pay for further recovery. Officials welcomed tourists back as of Oct. 1. In contrast, the near-total absence of any economic activity has left Puerto Rico’s government in danger of running out of money by the end of the month. The commonwealth’s treasury secretary, Raul Maldonado, told Bloomberg that the widespread damage to telecommunications and electricity infrastructure means it will be at least a month, and perhaps longer, before the government can expect to begin collecting sales tax again; the government will run through its existing cash before that can happen. And (despite some overblown claims about the effects of the catchy summer jam “Despacito”) Puerto Rico struggled to compete for tourists even before Hurricane Maria.

In the Florida Keys, however, recovery continues slowly but steadily. Perhaps it will continue less slowly if the community’s tourism boosters succeed in convincing potential visitors that Irma is no reason to delay their vacation plans.

I have limited handyman skills. I’m not much help if you need to put on a new roof or clear away a downed tree. But I do have my open water scuba certification. If looking at the coral can help revive the Keys, count me in.

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