Preservation Expert: Historic Florida Cities May Be Forever Changed by Irma

Famous beach towns and landmarks along Atlantic coast may suffer irreparable damage from hurricane

Hurricane Irma is so large and so ferocious that if it continues on its projected track and hits South Florida head-on, the state may never be the same again.

“We’re on the precipice of losing a lot of Florida’s history,” said Morris Hylton III, director of the historic preservation program at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

[lz_ndn video=32950584 ]

Irma is projected to hit several historic cities in Florida head on, including Key West, where more than 2,500 homes — most of them wood-frame homes with tin roofs built in the 1800s — make up the historic district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Key West is also home to a historic lighthouse, and to the Hemingway House, where American novelist Ernest Hemingway lived between 1931 and 1939. The home is a National Historic Landmark. Less well-known are historic buildings such as the San Carlos Theatre on Duval Street, built in 1890, where in 1892, Cuban revolutionary leader José Martí gave a rousing speech to Cuban exiles calling on them to unite to fight for Cuba’s independence from Spain.

Three pre-Civil War-era forts are also on the island, and a fourth, owned by the National Park Service, sits on a small island in the Dry Tortugas, an island chain west of Key West.

Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West (Photo credit: Margaret Menge/LifeZette)

Do you support individual military members being able to opt out of getting the COVID vaccine?

By completing the poll, you agree to receive emails from LifeZette, occasional offers from our partners and that you've read and agree to our privacy policy and legal statement.

Irma is also projected to hit Miami-Dade County, home to more than 2.5 million people and several historic areas, most notably Miami Beach, which sits on the barrier island, separated from Miami by Biscayne Bay. On Miami Beach, art deco hotels from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s line Ocean Drive, across the street from the beach.

The entire barrier island is built out, with tall modern buildings on the extreme south end, but hundreds of two-, three-, and four-story buildings covering the historic district in South Beach, from Fifth Street to Lincoln Road. There are a total of 960 historic art deco buildings on South Beach, making it the largest collection of art deco buildings in the world.

It’s possible that some will not survive a direct hit by a Category 4 or 5 hurricane.

Hylton said he’s not certain, despite the strong preservation culture on Miami Beach, that there would be enough photos of all the art deco hotels and apartment buildings for them to be rebuilt if needed.

“And then the question is, who would pay for it?” he adds.

Several historic downtown Miami buildings may also be at risk, such as the Freedom Tower, built in 1924 and 1925 as the headquarters of the local newspaper, the Miami News, and used in the 1960s as a processing center for the tens of thousands of Cubans fleeing communism after Castro’s revolution.

The Freedom Tower (center) in downtown Miami opened in 1925 (Photo credit: Tom Schaefer/Wikipedia).

Many of the buildings built in the 1800s and early 1900s were built to withstand tropical-force winds, but there aren’t many buildings built to withstand 180 mph winds.

Also in Miami-Dade County is the historic community of Coconut Grove, which sits along Biscayne Bay, south of the City of Miami, and also Coral Gables, a beautiful city of stately Mediterranean homes. Two 2016 Republican presidential candidates — Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush — live in Coral Gables.

The historic parts of South Florida track the coastline, and also track the Florida East Coast railroad tracks, which run from Miami straight north to Jacksonville, about a half-mile to a mile inland from the water.

North of Miami-Dade County is Broward County, home to historic Hollywood and Ft. Lauderdale, and above it, in Palm Beach County, the historic beachfront towns of Delray Beach, Lake Worth, West Palm Beach, and Palm Beach, on the barrier island.

The Gulfstream Hotel, in Lake Worth, central Palm Beach County (Photo credit: Margaret Menge/LifeZette)

Hylton worked as an adviser in areas hit by Hurricane Katrina and said, based on that experience, Florida’s coastline may never look the same after Irma.

“In the case of Mississippi, that coastline was forever destroyed,” he said, describing the destruction of antebellum homes along the Gulf Coast.

“In some instances, there was nothing there but the foundation.”

It wasn’t feasible in most cases to rebuild, he said.

“A lot of places, there was just no sign of the building,” he told LifeZette. “It was gone.”

In many of the areas of Louisiana and Mississippi hit by Katrina, so many of the historic homes were destroyed that historic neighborhoods were removed from the National Historic Register.

“It takes decades, hundreds of years, for neighborhoods to evolve that sense of place,” he said. “A storm like this, it takes hours for it all to be erased.”

Key West Mayor Craig Cates, a fourth-generation conch whose ancestors came to the island from Cuba and the Bahamas, said he’s optimistic that most of Key West’s historic homes and buildings will survive Irma.

“We don’t foresee a lot of damages for those,” he told LifeZette on Friday morning. “We should fare well with our historic buildings.”

Most of the homes from the 1800s, he said, were built by ships’ carpenters using Dade County Pine.

“That’s why these buildings held up so well,” he said.

A historic home in Key West (Photo credit: Margaret Menge/LifeZette)

Cates has remained in Key West and said he thinks one-third to 45 percent of Key West residents have remained on the island, even though all grocery stores and gas stations are closed, along with the hospital, Lower Keys Medical Center.

[lz_related_box id=79466]

A lot of residents stayed, he said, to secure their boats.

“They know if boats get damaged, they can’t get back,” he said.

The last bus out leaves at 6 p.m. today, taking residents to shelters on the mainland, in Miami-Dade.

Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez has ordered 650,000 people in his city to evacuate, an unprecedented number, saying, “We have to prepare for the worst.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said on Friday that all residents of the state of Florida should be prepared to evacuate, though clarified that people don’t need to leave the state, but should go inland, to a shelter or hotel.

“Protecting life is our absolutely top priority,” he said.

(photo credit, homepage image: Reinhard Jahn, Wikimedia; photo credit, article image: Visitor7, Wikimedia)

Join the Discussion

Comments are currently closed.