Key West welcomed cruise ship passengers Sept. 24 — for the first time since before Hurricane Irma blew through the Florida Keys Sept. 10 — when the Empress of the Seas docked at a port facility beside the island city’s historic downtown.

Key West cruise ship after Hurricane Irma

Key West Mayor Craig Cates (right) greets passengers from the Empress of the Seas Sunday, Sept. 24 — during the first cruise ship port call since before Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Marathon’s Turtle Hospital welcomed its newest “patient” Sept. 25: a 118-pound loggerhead sea turtle that was rescued after a fishing boat crew discovered it entangled in fish trap line.

And on Oct. 1, visitors will be welcomed back to the 125-mile island chain — because that’s the day the Keys will officially reopen to travelers after Irma’s unwelcome arrival.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Keys are completely back to normal, or that all tourism and lodging facilities are operating as usual.

In fact, potential visitors should call ahead to ensure that hotels and their favorite attractions are open.

Hurricane Irma caused varying degrees of damage along the beloved island chain.

Key West and the northernmost island of Key Largo reported the fewest impacts, but in other areas — especially the Lower Keys and parts of Marathon — many homes and businesses were hard hit by the Category 4 storm, and recovery efforts will continue for weeks or months.

But amazing progress has been made since Irma derailed residents’ electric power, running water and communications. By two weeks later, almost all power and water had been restored from Key Largo through Marathon, as well as throughout Stock Island and Key West, and most cell phones were once again working well.

Islamorada sunset

A tranquil Islamorada sunset helps restore spirits during the recovery after Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

For Keys officials, the decision to reopen to visitors was based in great part on their concern for residents. Getting the islands’ tourism-based economy back up and running is vital for those who earn their living by serving visitors.

“We know we have a long way to go before the Keys fully recover,” said Monroe County Mayor George Neugent. “But because tourism is our top economic engine and many of our residents’ livelihoods depend on it, we also know that we need to begin asking visitors to return.”

“The people need to go back to work, and this is a huge part of our recovery,” summed up Key West Mayor Craig Cates, who was on hand to personally greet cruise ship passengers as they disembarked the Empress of the Seas.

During the port call, passengers visited landmark Key West attractions including the historic Key West Aquarium, explored the island aboard the Conch Tour Train, and toasted recovery efforts at Sloppy Joe’s Bar.

In addition to the port, Key West International Airport has reopened for commercial service and general aviation. Florida Keys Marathon International Airport is open for general aviation and charter flights again.

Glass Bottom Boat off Key West

The Fury Glass Bottom Boat departs Key West carrying passengers from the Empress of the Seas. (Photo courtesy of Fury Water Adventures)

And the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, the iconic road that connects the Keys with each other and the Florida mainland, is open and in good condition.

But perhaps most important, the spirit and resilience of most Keys residents is in equally good condition, despite the difficult hurricane impacts and aftermath.

As an example of that spirit, many Keys special events scheduled for mid to late October are to take place as planned, according to organizers.

Visitors can look forward to celebrating the Keys’ character and lifestyle at events including Key Largo’s Humphrey Bogart Film Festival, set for Oct. 18-22; Key West’s Fantasy Fest, running Oct. 20-29; and Marathon’s tasty Stone Crab Eating Contest, scheduled Oct. 21.

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