For a new Key West resident, Irma was her welcome to town

By , on September 19, 2017


KEY LARGO, Fla. — Prudence Duchene will never forget the day she moved to Key West.

It was Aug. 30 — the day a storm brewing in the Atlantic got named Irma.

Duchene, 22, was actually waiting to board her Florida-bound flight from Albany International Airport when she saw the news that the newly named tropical storm was headed toward the Keys. She got on the plane, not only moving to Florida as a powerful hurricane loomed but staying in Key West to ride out the storm.

She survived, shaken but fine. And, as she said, “with a fantastic story to tell.”

“I was interviewing for jobs and people kept asking me what I was going to do about the storm,” Duchene said. “I kept telling them it would be all right, that it was no big deal. And a couple days later, I watched the 11 o’clock advisory and started to wig out. I texted all my friends and said ‘I love you’ because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Duchene spent three days inside the Key West Courthouse, living off a slew of food that was cooked ahead of time. She is now getting by with the help of generators. Since Irma passed, Duchene has already secured a job in resort management and has been busy in recent days working with friends to aid those in the Keys who need help.

Duchene said one radio station in the Keys kept broadcasting during the storm, so she had some idea of Irma’s wrath. She couldn’t call home for days after the storm passed, not until she found a bike shop with a working land line — and waited an hour in line for her chance at a 30-second phone call to let her family know she was fine. Irma was long gone before she understood the full extent of what the storm did in the Caribbean and in Florida.

“There are (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) wrappers all over parking lots down here now,” Duchene said. “This is how people are living down here. People waited in line four hours for gas. It’s been a very kind of primitive deal. There are a lot of people who are way worse off than we are, but it’s also been a very interesting thing to be a part of.”

Duchene is from the tiny Adirondack Mountain town of Long Lake, New York, about a two-hour drive north of Albany. It’s a very remote place where hurricanes aren’t exactly a concern. Snowstorms and wind chill, yes. Winds topping 100 mph and storm surge, no.

Much of the work in the Adirondacks is seasonal, and with summer ending the flow of tourist dollars into the local economies tends to slow significantly. That’s why Duchene decided to give Key West a try, never thinking she would be immediately greeted by a storm that would leave such a massive impact on her new home.

“The wind was blowing so hard it sounded like thunder,” Duchene said. “So next time, if it’s a Category 4 or something, we’ll get the heck out. I’m thankful that we’re fine, but it’s dangerous.”