Getting Back to Normal After Irma: How Everyday Citizens Can Make a Big Impact

I’m here today to talk about the magic that happens in a community after something tragic happens.

And speaking of magic, I want you to think of a time in your life, it can be anything, that someone showed up at just the right moment and  said just the right thing, or a situation unfolded in just the right way to give you exactly what you needed, or maybe to move forward.  We’ve all been there…maybe it was something as simple as being in a hurry and – much to your relief - someone on the elevator holding the door just long enough for you to catch it.  Maybe it was something more meaningful, like a friendly coworker coming back from lunch with a bowl of soup after she heard you say you weren’t feeling well.  Or maybe it was something major, like a truck of supplies…..showing up…. after a hurricane.  Whatever it is, you KNOW that sense of relief you feel when things are not going your way, someone notices, and without you asking, they just make it a little bit better. 



In today’s episode, we’re talking about the kinds of big changes that come from small acts, and how a community of islands can be rocked by a devastating storm, and still have the resilience to go forward


Words like “Hurricane” and “Tropical Storm” and “flood” are kind of like bad words around here.  Much of the island is just above sea-level…heck the highest point is roughly 18 feet, so even an extremely high tide and a bad rain can wreak havoc on city streets and lower-lying homes.



But what we faced in September 2017 was something completely different.  Hurricane Irma dealt a catastrophic blow to the Florida Keys.  It was the strongest storm in terms of maximum sustained winds since Wilma back in 2005, and the strongest storm on record to exist in the open Atlantic region.  While Irma affected the entire state of Florida and even up into the Southeastern US coming in at a cost of just over $53 billion, the Florida Keys suffered the worst of that damage,


Making landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, strong winds and storm surge flooding caused major damage to buildings, cars,  boats, roads….and it shut off the electricity supply, cell phone towers, internet access, sanitation, water supply and fuel supply throughout up and down US 1.


Now, when you do any research about this storm, read the news, talk to the experts, they tell you things like the fact that 27,649 homes experienced some degree of damage, and caused 14 deaths up and down the Keys.   When the winds died down, it was clear that the majority of the devastation had occurred in the Middle and Lower Keys…so those are areas like Big Pine, Cudjoe, Sugarloaf, and Marathon, all between 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half-away from Key West.  Roofs blown off, debri thrown into canals, boats tossed out of the water and onto the roads….and for those that escaped the wind damage, there came the unavoidable results of flood waters.



That’s all obvious, right?  We all know the iconic sight of a bent palm tree and a weatherman gripping tightly to his bright yellow jacket. 


And sure, that’s part of the story too… the story of real people…myself included….driving back down US1, weaving in and out of debri on the road and slowly making our way home, fighting back tears as we finally get to see, many of us weeks later while being camped out in hotels or with family members as far as we could run before the final hunker down was necessary.  But you’re coming back and you see what happened first hand…I know I got off easy, but coming home to two flooded cars and a huge mess was no fun either .


But the story they don’t tell you….the one you might not think about, is the story that’s going on beneath the surface….it’s when you see that your city has quickly gotten back on it’s feet, but your neighbors to the north have a long row to hoe.  It’s realizing that your livelihood is on hold…if you were in the Middle or Upper Keys, that was because the business you worked at was literally uninhabitable.  If you were in Key West, your livelihood was affected because it was the PERCEPTION that visitors thought they couldn’t come…and the lack of understanding of basic geography, that damage in Key Largo – a city 2 hours away – did not equate to the conditions in Key West.  And it’s the story of the simple things that often get overlooked…a clean pair of shoes, a hand written card to lift your spirits on the worst days, a set of school supplies. 



My guest today was one such person that got that need.  Kimberly Arencibia, or “Kimmy” as many who know her refer to her, has been in Key West most of her life.  Her husband is a multi-generation conch – that is, the original inhabitants of the island stretching back for centuries – and demographics aside, Kim is one of those rare types of people who will not sit by if she knows someone needs something.


To paint the picture, She’s this tiny framed person, maybe 5’3…I realize as I’m saying this I should’ve asked her….but though she’s this petite person, there is nothing small about her energy.  We joke in the episode about “the mouth”, something she even humored me with a photo of the hat she wore to the interview, and I’ll have that over in the show notes at….but anyway, yeah, she’s someone who has never been afraid to make herself known. 


I met Kim a few years after moving to Key West through our mutual work in the wedding industry, we later would go on to do business together, and I found her to be one of those people that if you need something, she is there with the shirt off her back, and will call things like she sees them.



And while she might say something or do something you might not agree with, I have come to know that everything she says or does is always with a fervent sense of purpose, who will let nothing stand in her way of helping someone.   And it’s this persistence, this drive, and this fervor that has frankly, after the storm, become a huge asset in the Key West community, as she took on a new role, thought outside the box, skipped the corporate red tape, and just did what she felt needed to be done. 


And not just for the essentials like clothes and water and shelter, but also the things you might not consider….the things that get you back to a sense of normal…the things that make you feel like there’s hope…the things that give us dignity…a fresh hair cut, a pressed shirt that smells like spring linen, a brand new mailbox in your front yard….she thought of things that make you feel connected….a hot meal with people in your neighborhood, a helping hand to clear a path to your front door, or an anonymous note to let you know you’re not alone. 

And for the kids whose normal lives and normal childhood activities and rites of passage were turned upside down because of the storm, it would be totally understandable to skip frivolities like Halloweeen, or Homecoming, or Prom.


Now, no, while a prom dress or a Halloween costume might not be traditional things you think about when you consider what a community needs after a horrendous storm like this, my guest today, Kim,  she recognized the fact that having a little sense of normal was just one more step toward helping the community recover.



Because there is a sense of pride that comes with being able to look at a bad situation and go “you know what, I’m not going to allow this to affect me living my life”.


In this interview, we get into where that sense of “mission” comes from, what inspired her to get started in helping her community, forming her affectionately-referred “mother daughter duo” that she formed with her daughter Kylie Mae to become what’s now known as “Kids of the Florida Keys”,


We go into the impact it’s made on her life, how being part of her organization even In just a small way has affected ME….from helping do hair and makeup and photos for Key West High School students trying to go to homecoming only a month after the hurricane where she gathered gowns and shoes and tiaras and every manner of bling a storm-worn but starry eyed 16 year old could ever want, to later documenting her Keys Kids Cut-A-Thon, an event she rallied local hair stylists to cut hair at a prominent hotel in town, the 24 North, got Coca Cola to sponsor school supplies for the kids of Marathon, Matthew Fox aka DJ Gunz to dj the event…


 it was incredible and that was actually the event that inspired me to record this episode, because I just looked at this tiny person in the middle of this giant room, with all these people from the community busy working at their various tasks, and all the kids and grateful parents coming in, and I just looked at her and was like, in awe, like “how did you do this?” 


The insurance companies are screwing everyone, FEMA never came through, you’re not a multi-million dollar corporation, you’re a one-man-band…or, well, I should say a two-woman-duo with Kylie Mae….you are still trying to get back on their feet and could just as easily go “you know what, we’ve got our own problems” (as you knooooow we are alllll guilty of)….like just How did you do this, and how do you pull these kinds of things off like this? 

So that’s what we’re getting into…you’re going to hear shoutouts to locals, relived stories both uplifting and slightly heartbreaking, and, my ultimate goal here, is that you might take away a little nugget and consider for your own community something that you realize…you know what, I see that it doesn’t take a momentous effort to make a big difference, let me give this whole island-style community support thing a try….



I’ll have links to resources mentioned, and a few photos from some of the events, including the famous hat picture, and you can enjoy that over at Key West Perspective dot come forward slash podcast forward slash kimmy, that’s k- I m m y. 



So without further ado, I hope you will enjoy this interview with Kimberly Arencibia, local Key West advocate, activist and founder of Kids of the Florida Keys.  Enjoy!