Hurricane Irma: Holdouts brace as winds begin to whip Key West

Hurricane Irma began to barrage Key West with powerful winds and driving rain on Saturday night, downing trees, knocking out electricity, sparking a brief tornado warning and grounding a sailboat against rocks.

The worst was still hours away.

But the storm nevertheless scattered the homeless men who vowed to ride out Irma in the storefronts of Duval Street. One of them wore only trunks, flippers and a snorkel mask most of the day. The only person who remained, drenched but oblivious to the rain, was a homeless woman who spent the entire day sweeping up branches — and she refused to go to the shelter of last resort at Key West High.

“I have a plan,” the woman said.

As of 8 p.m. Saturday, Irma was still about 175 miles southeast of Key West but felt dreadfully close.

At La Concha hotel, widely considered the safest and highest structure on Key West, Marty North puffed on a cigarette outside a side-street lobby and watched the winds whistling down Duval. He and his partner, Chris Bradley, live in an old but unsafe Conch home, and they got lucky to get a room at La Concha — rooms that opened up when TV reporters packed up and left ahead of the storm.

“Let’s see what happens,” North said, dragging on a cigarette. “All I know is that I’m alive right now, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this in 24 hours.”

Like most of the guests, the two were locals who snagged a room. Those with dogs mingled in front of the doors, their dogs happily gulping down fresh air. Inside the lobby, others drank cocktails, ate potato chips at the bar and played a game called Cards Against Humanity.

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“It’s a little like the Titanic right now,” said Key West teacher Kim Sylar, a longtime resident staying for the first time in a Key West hotel. “But I have a feeling it will be OK.”

The hotel remained open and serving drinks, but the famous bars along Duval had shuttered. Only one, the Bourbon Street bar, remained open serving beer and well drinks even as the rain pounded guests. But the last three guests were ushered out just around 7 p.m..

Only employees, about 14 who couldn’t leave Key West, remained to ride out the storm, said bar owner Joey Schroeder.

“This will be quite a day, but we’ll get through it.”