Tim Stanton emerged from his ruined workshop off Highway 1 on Big Pine Key and collapsed to the ground, his sunburned, tear-covered face contorted in anguish.

The skeleton-thin 58-year-old with long, stringy gray hair sat under an old gas station awning, overcome by his personal loss in this idyllic place that was one of the hardest hit by Hurricane Irma. A tree fell on the trailer where he lives, and his shop was destroyed, along with an old BMW convertible he had just bought with saved money.

Like many people who drop out of more traditional lives to come to the Keys and forge their own path, Stanton moved here eight years ago from Pennsylvania with plans to cobble together a living based on his own ideas and entrepreneurship. First, he sold fresh-pressed lime and sugarcane drinks on the roadside, then gained a local name for crafting ukuleles out of old cigar boxes and worked in a fruit grove. He managed to stitch together an income in one of the nation’s most expensive places and was just getting by when Irma roared into town.

“It’s great here if you’re rich, but for the rest of us it’s a struggle,” said a sobbing Stanton, who goes by the nickname “Ukulele Tim.” Now “it’s going to be a while before it’s paradise again. I had just scraped up enough to buy a car. Destroyed.”

Those who live here know the bargain: turquoise waters and powdery sand but also hurricanes. Still, locals consider themselves hardy souls who are willing to gamble on escaping a direct hit. The last hurricane to make landfall here was Charley in 2004. Irma destroyed at least 25 percent of homes on the Keys, according to FEMA, and badly damaged systems for delivering water and electricity.

The storm’s savagery

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