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Hewitt sees Hurricane Irma's impact on Florida Keys first-hand

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This is the scene that greeted Hewitt as he drove toward his home in Tavernier, Fla. "As cleanup continued, these piles grew larger," he said.2 / 3
Mark Hewitt surveys the damage to his Florida Keys property after Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sept. 10. (Submitted photos)3 / 3

Seven days after Hurricane Irma tore through his winter home, Mark Hewitt arrived to assess the damage.

"Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest hurricanes ever, made landfall in the Florida Keys on Sept. 10," said Hewitt, CEO of Northwoods Bank and a Park Rapids Rotary Club member. "Video shows damage to my home, my neighborhood and surrounding area. Winds in our area were clocked at over 110 miles an hour with five- to six-foot storm surge."

Hewitt's neighbor, Chris, stayed throughout the storm and shot footage as it swept by.

The eye of the storm landed as a Category 4 about 60 miles from his property in Tavernier, Fla., "but we were on the bad side of the storm," Hewitt said.

Electricity was restored about a week after the hurricane, Hewitt said, but not internet service.

"Although debris clean-up had already started, it was still everywhere," he said. "I witnessed a lot of destruction and an unbelievable amount of debris. There is not a single sign standing. No billboards, no business signs. Piles of debris on every highway and street."

The shoreline was a mess. Hewitt's dock was destroyed.

"I had completely rebuilt decking on my dock last winter," he said. "Our docks were stripped of all the decking, but Chris' boat remained in its lift. My yard and pool were full of dock sections from my dock as well as neighbor's docks from as far as three houses away."

Debris filled passageways between houses, "an indication of the height of the storm surge," he added.

"My coconut palm survived," he said. "Many of the trees were stripped bare."

Patio blocks, topsoil and other rubble ended up in Hewitt's pool, but he said clean-up crews did "a great job" of pulling it out before he arrived.

Hewitt's home is concrete built on stilts, "designed to withstand hurricanes with great hurricane shutters and it survived pretty well."

The downstairs patio was covered with sludge, which required an acid wash.

"Dirty water penetrated the hurricane shutters and patio doors in the second and third floors, but with no apparent permanent damage."

On Sept. 27, Hewitt took time from clean-up efforts to celebrate his 65th birthday with Chris and a friend.

Hewitt also drove south, closer to where the eye of Irma hit the Keys.

"Although many businesses remain closed four weeks after the hurricane, the ones that were open had plywood spray-painted 'open,'" he said. "A lot of hotels and restaurants have yet to re-open. Only a small percentage of dive shops had re-opened. The fishing fleet was hard hit. My neighbor, who is a lobster fisherman, has only found 238 of his 2,700 traps."

Many businesses will be facing problems in getting both employees and customers back, Hewitt said.

"Many workers have lost their housing. Workforce housing was especially hard hit."

Park Rapids area residents have asked Hewitt where they can make a donation.

The Rotary Club of the Upper Keys meets about a mile from Hewitt's house. They have set up a separate checking account to accept donations for the long-term needs of those in the Florida Keys impacted by Hurricane Irma. The club, through its foundation, is accepting donations to support rebuilding projects (e.g., granting a not-for-profit organization with funding for a project not covered by insurance). Donations can be made by check to Upper Keys Rotary Foundation Inc., with Hurricane Irma in the memo line, and mailed to P.O. Box 1514, Tavernier, Fla 33070 or at Upper Keys Rotary website (

"Although many in the Keys face hardship, they are hardy folks and they will recover," Hewitt said.