News flash: Florida has pink flamingos!
Seriously, this is news. Big news. Because it turns out that in Florida, the official story is that we don't have flamingos and if you happened to see one, or maybe a couple dozen, well they were just escapees from the Hialeah racetrack.
This story tells how this assumption became accepted doctrine — and how a new study has overturned that doctrine with the help of 19th century egg collections, accounts from birders, 21st century databases and one stubborn flamingo named Conchy.
NPR's Weekend All Things Considered also picked up a shorter version of the story. Yay flamingos!
Irma and After
Hurricane Irma feels like a thousand years ago. It feels like yesterday. As of this writing, almost six months after the storm, Key West looks pretty damned good for a place with a close brush with a Category 4 hurricane. Twenty miles up the road, people are still coping with the consequences every damned day.
Here are a couple stories that I think best show what the experience was like if you're curious. There was the first real piece of radio I produced once we had power back (and we got Internet just in time to send it to Miami for broadcast) - a Letter from Key West that includes some folks Mark and I met in the days right after the storm. Harrowing stories of survival, and a determined escape.
There was an earlier dispatch that I filed by our Google voicemail line, which is how I got audio to Miami before cell phone service and Internet were back. I wrote that one on a yellow legal pad in the first days, and I hope it captures how weird it was to be suddenly catapulted back into the pre-digital era. I will admit this - it had its upside. At one point we all looked around and realized no one had spoken of, or even thought about, national politics in a week.
And my story about a radio station on Sugarloaf Key — basically Ground Zero for Irma's eye — that stayed on the air during and after the storm and provided virtually the only form of communication for most of the people who stayed in the Keys. Radio about radio - meta, right? I recorded the audio by propping my mic next to the Eton battery powered radio that I got in a WLRN pledge drive, many years ago. It was cool, and hats off to the crew from WWUS-U.S. 1 Radio who sweated and stayed awake and kept all the equipment going and let us all know when we could shower and flush our toilets. I hope you, and we, never have to do that again.
We were off the air for awhile down here so immediately after the storm, I wasn't really filing for people in the Keys. WLRN was, however, providing a huge service in getting information out to the Keys diaspora — all the people who had followed the evacuation order, left, couldn't get back in and were desperate for information about what was happening here. My colleagues on the mainland, who were coping with their own not-so-fun experience with Irma, made this happen. I will be forever grateful to them. Half a year later, people are still coming up to me and thanking me for this.
Coral spawning is a still little-understood phenomenon - once or sometimes twice a year, in the full moon, coral colonies release bundles of eggs and sperm in the hope that they will find each other out in the water and settle down to create new bundles of coral joy.
Amazingly, it's worked for millennia. However, one species of coral that is already struggling to survive on the Keys reef, is having a hard time. Pillar coral colonies don't release eggs and sperm. They are gender specific - so it's eggs OR sperm. With dwindling numbers of colonies out there due to disease and other factors, chances of the gametes meeting up with the opposite sex are pretty slim.
So a group of biologists in the Keys have been working on giving those corals a bit of a boost at spawning time. This is my story about that effort.
Body cams can really make a difference. In the case of one Monroe County Sheriff's deputy, his body camera recorded him giving some undocumented immigrants a hard time — including one guy who had just been hit by a car while riding his bike.
This made national news and came at the same time there was a lot of conversation in the Keys about whether local law enforcement ought to be inquiring into people's immigration status. The answer, it turns out, depends on where you encounter that cop and the decisions that individual officer makes about your case.
Some people are really, really into the Netflix series Bloodline. People in Islamorada sure liked it for the money and attention it brought to the community. The Keys tourism agency even did a study saying it was adding millions to the economy.
Sadly, it ended after only three seasons after the state of Florida refused to renew incentives for film production companies to work here. This is a shame, for those of us who especially appreciated how well Chloe Sevigny and Norbert Leo Butz portrayed genuine, scruffy locals. But the show in its relatively short run attracted a devoted following — so enterprising local writers David Sloan and Brad Bertelli wrote a couple guidebooks to show you where different scenes from the show were shot.
Here's my story about the show, and how the locals liked it. We also created a cool interactive map on this web post. That's probably my favorite thing about it, as well as the opportunity to have lunch with Brad at Marker 88 in one of those porch-rocker-booths that was where the late, great Sam Shepard told his son (Ben Mendelsohn) to get the hell out of town. Shoulda listened, Danny.
Tales from the territories: The Not-Quite States of America
I've gotten to know Doug Mack over the last 10 years as he's returned, year after year, to be a "super-volunteer" at the Key West Literary Seminar. If you've attended the Seminar, Doug's the guy on the desk who patiently helps anyone who needs it. And ... it turns out, Doug is also a damned good writer himself. He writes travel books and they're the kind I like best, where he has a mission beyond just "go to an interesting place" or "find myself on some epic journey." His first book, "Europe On Five Wrong Turns A Day," used a 1963 guidebook to travel and see what has changed — and what hasn't. And now he's got a new book that explores the "Not-Quite States of America" — ie., the territories that have influenced and shaped the entire USA far more than most of us realize. He was in town recently to talk about the book so I grabbed him for an interview while he was here.
Little college pursuing big dreams — right when the state is pushing back
Florida Keys Community College would like to join the ranks of most of the state's other schools that started out offering two-year associate degrees. They've become simply colleges, offering bachelor's degrees. And some of them have become nationally recognized powerhouses, like Miami-Dade College. FKCC is just making the leap, with its first four-year degree program in supervision and management — while the state Legislature is pushing back, making it harder for the state colleges to offer four-year programs so they won't compete with the state universities. I visited a class at FKCC and spoke with a couple of the students enrolled in the new program.
Key West's latest addiction: The news from 1855
Over the last year, those of us who read the Today in History column in the Key West Citizen have gotten to speaking a special code. It involves early walks, baths, growing hemp, trying (and usually failing) to shoot birds and the weird health approaches taken to a hapless sick baby. For the last year, the Today in History column has featured daily diary entries from William Hackley, an attorney who lived in Key West from the 1830s to the 1850s. It's become like a soap opera, as well as a valuable and interesting window into daily life on the island. I'll admit to envying how much the guy gets to sit around and read magazines.
Saving Key deer means new relationship with wild animals
There's always something to write about the Key deer - whether they're getting hit by cars, deliberately killed by people or tangled up in soccer nets ... once a national wildlife refuge manager told me they'd pulled a Key deer off the ritzy Little Palm Island resort and had to give it an enema because the guests "had been feeding it bon-bons." But this year there was a threat no one expected — the New World screwworm, an invasive and incredibly gross pest that had been eradicated from the U.S. for more than 30 years. And it showed up in the Lower Keys, home of the Key deer, where it found the perfect host in males that were beating each other up for the rutting season. So that required some unorthodox responses from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Key West Cemetery: Where last words are sometimes one-liners
The most famous headstone at the Key West Cemetery is that of B.P. Roberts: "I Told You I Was Sick." But in recent years that epitaph has been joined by a host of other snarky comments. And for some reason, they're all on this one mausoleum (the city sexton says that's not intentional). Here's my story. Please click on the link and check out the slideshow, which has information on some of the other interesting memorials in one of my favorite places in Key West, including the Otto family terriers ("His Beautiful Spirit Was A Challenge To Love") and Bolo ("Dean Of Herald Carriers In Florida").
Around Key West on Two Wheels
The good people at WLRN were good enough to give me a bike back in April, when we officially opened the Southernmost public radio studio at The Studios of Key West. And that bike got a lot of attention — even a piece in Bicycling magazine's web site! I decided to put the bike to work and rode around the island with Key West's new go-getting pedestrian/cycling/transit coordinator, Chris Hamilton. Here's the story.
Dade County Birthplace Now A Keys 'Ghost Town'
If you had to guess where Dade County, forerunner of Miami-Dade County, was born, chances are you would think it was somewhere on the mainland. You would be wrong. Dade County was created by the Florida Legislature in 1836 at the behest of an empire-building shipwreck salvaging magnate named Jacob Housman. And that empire was based at Indian Key, an island off what is now Islamorada in the Upper Keys. The empire didn't last all that long – Housman lost everything in an attack by Native Americans that was part of the Seminole Wars. But for a few years there, Indian Key became a shipwreck salvaging and subtropical horticulture outpost that almost rivaled Key West. Now the new Florida Keys History and Discovery Museum in Islamorada has created a new exhibit about the little-known history of the place, complete with a cool 3-D model. I kayaked over to Indian Key with writer and historian Brad Bertelli to check out the ghost town that sits right off our shore.
Genetically Modified Mosquitoes
The Florida Keys have been on the forefront of effective mosquito control — and disease suppression — by using old-school tools like turkey basters and door-to-door inspections. Now the Keys could be on the front lines for a cutting-edge approach to battling Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that carries dengue fever, chikungunya — and zika. A first-in-the-U.S. trial of the technology has won preliminary approval from the FDA, but some in the neighborhood where it would be tested are opposed. Here's my story for NPR about the issue. I also did a story for WLRN about how distrust of the GMO technology is affecting the issue.
Lots of books are set in Key West — and the majority of them seem to be mysteries. Some of the most successful are the Key West Food Critic Mysteries by Lucy Burdette. That's the pen name for Roberta Isleib, a local writer. The seventh installment in the series, Killer Takeout, is about to be published. Isleib sat down with me to talk about her book and about writing about the island, including real places and people (when I was doing the web post for the story I had the novel experience of double-checking the spelling of a fictional character's name ... by checking my Facebook friends.
The Rose Tattoo
Tennessee Williams was born in March so it has become the month that Key West celebrates the playwright. Last year I did a story about the renewal of interest in his work on the island. This year's story is about The Rose Tattoo. The play was set in an unnamed town on the Gulf of Mexico. For the movie version, Key West played that role. Italian actress Anna Magnani starred in the movie and won an Academy Award for the role. But the play and movie have been largely forgotten and Magnani doesn't have the same kind of U.S. profile as, say, Sophia Loren. This story, run around the 60th anniversary of Magnani's Oscar win, is about the restoration of the Rose Tattoo house by an Italian couple. I've seen the movie a few times and knew the story — but it had never occurred to me, until they pointed it out, that Rose is the name of Tennessee Williams' beloved, disabled sister. And that he put her name in a work with a happy ending which, we all know, is pretty unusual for him.
In many portrayals on tours, song and stage, Key West's past is portrayed as quaint, or amusing. But the recent history — like the 1970s and '80s — were serious for a lot of locals. Playwright Michael Marrero has brought those stories to the stage in Locura, a new play.
New in Old Town
How do you incorporate new construction into a historic district like Old Town Key West? A recent spate of new construction has brought that question to the forefront — and highlighted the debate about whether new buildings should blend in with the old, or should be obviously different so they are not masquerading as faux historic.
In the early 1990s, Florida Bay collapsed. A seagrass die-off led to algae blooms and threatened the regional economy. That threat helped sell the historic Everglades restoration plan. Now, after a drought last summer, the seagrass has started dying again. Fishing guides and scientists can only watch ... and worry. This story ran on NPR's Weekend Edition, as part of a four-part series about the Everglades.
In the 1950s, an eccentric inventor named Adolph Grimal came to the Keys to work on underwater 3-D photography. But he fell in love with tropical horticulture and built himself an oasis on Big Pine Key. After his death it was neglected and overgrown. But then another dreamer came along — one who's made it his mission to revive Grimal Grove.
Over the years, I've seen the big Saturday night Fantasy Fest parade from a lot of angles. As a reporter and, for many years, as a participant. But in recent years it's gotten a lot less fun and a lot less interesting. This essay covers why I gave the parade a pass this year and went out to New Town for a friend's Halloween party (and to give out candy to kids — which was waaaaay more fun than the parade has been in recent years.
If you live or own property in the Florida Keys and you are airlifted to the mainland you can wind up with a bill for tens of thousands of dollars. Or you could pay nothing. It all depends on which helicopter takes you. And now, the county is trying to make sure residents know about the cheaper, county-owned option — and can make their wishes known even if they can't communicate.
For anyone living in South Florida, the years of 2004 and 2005 have become a kind of merciful blur. At least I hope so. Those were the years that we were repeatedly on alert for hurricanes. We thought 2004 was bad — until the next year started right up with Arlene in June and kept going until Tropical Storm Zeta. In January. Of 2006. They ran out of letter names and the storm season refused to shut down on Nov. 30, like it's supposed to.
But the worst was Wilma. It crashed into the Yucatan then hung out there for days before winding up and flinging itself across Florida. It was a Category 3 when it went by the Keys but it wasn't the wind that got us. It was the water. Here's my story about that storm, part of a series WLRN put together about Wilma's 10-year anniversary.
How We See You
A new photo show looks both ways across the Florida Straits. Photographer Jeffrey Cardenas, from Key West, and Cuban photographer Yanela Piñeiro, shot the same people at the same time. The differences, and similarities, in their images are fascinating. The show opened last year at the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. It had its U.S. debut at The Studios of Key West. And if you miss the show, you can still buy a copy of the book.
The Turtle Hospital in Marathon started out in the saltwater pool behind a modest motel. Now it's a cutting-edge facility that pioneers work to save sea turtles — especially green sea turtles suffering from the effects of fibropapilloma tumors.
New Deal Photographs
Arthur Rothstein was a photographer for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, working alongside colleagues like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to document Americans working through hardship. In 1938, he was assigned to visit Key West. His images capture the island during one of its bleakest periods, before the economic engines of the Navy and tourism blasted us back into prosperity.
Labor Day Hurricane
Eighty years ago, hurricanes didn't have human names. So the storm that killed hundreds of people and spelled the end of the Over-Sea Railway is known by the date it slammed into Islamorada: the Labor Day Hurricane.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is a complicated, dynamic place. The park's managers have to fulfill its sometimes conflicting mission: to preserve the park's resources while also providing as much access as possible to its owners — the public. And they're doing all this in South Florida, with a metropolitan area of 6 million people and the demands for development and water management above and around the park.
I talked to a longtime Florida Bay fishing guide about the park's new management plan, which includes more than 100,000 acres of pole-and-troll zones — areas where you would have to turn off the boat's motor and push it, to protect the shallow seagrass beds from propeller scarring. He's OK with most of the provisions of the plan, though adamant that physical user damage is in no way the major challenge facing the Everglades, including Florida Bay.
Civil War Memorials
Key West makes a big deal out of its status as the nation's Southernmost Point. But during the Civil War, we were the southernmost Union outpost, even though Florida was the third state to secede
Now we have memorials to the Civil War - both sides of the Civil War, in close proximity to each other. And the city isn't talking about taking down its Confederate memorial, a pavilion built in 1924 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They're restoring it, even as they also get ready to put up a new statue, honoring black soldiers who were recruited here during the war. My story about the memorials ran on NPR's Morning Edition Aug. 6. A slightly different, slightly longer version ran a couple weeks later on WLRN.
My first non-narrated piece! That means it's just the subject talking. And he's a great subject: Jim Hale races pigeons and rescues those that wind up in the Keys after getting blown off course. Including a surprising number from Cuba.
The prospect of renewed ferry service between the U.S. and Cuba has a lot of people on the island hoping for a return to the good old days. But there are some logistical hurdles to overcome.
Speaking of Cuba ... when the Obama administration announced the renewal of diplomatic relations, lots of people looked to Miami. But Key West is closer, and has long had a close relationship with Cuba. That relationship goes back a lot further than many people realize.
Key West's literary reputation is all about Hemingway, with the house and the cats and the lookalike contest. Now islanders are starting to focus on Tennessee Williams, the playwright who lived here much longer than Hemingway, and was a real part of the community even as he was hanging around with movie stars and celebrities.
Meg Cabot, author of the Princess Diaries series, is a popular and prolific writer. But the writer, who lives in Key West, recently took an uncharacteristic break from writing. Now she's back with two new books, both set in the world of the Princess Diaries, which she last wrote about in 2009. In this interview, she tells me about the books and about why she lives in Key West.