Dwayne Hope stands next to his car destroyed by Hurricane Irma on Big Pine Key, Fla., in September 2017. Hope lived on a boat for 20 years and tried to shelter in the car before retreating to a nearby house. The Category 4 hurricane took all his possessions. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

FL - Florida tosses climate lifeline to swamped 'Keybillies'

BIG PINE KEY, Fla. — Saima Kawzinsky doesn’t live in paradise, but when she can catch a break between her two jobs, it comes close.

The 33-year-old, who was raised here on the southernmost tip of Florida, enjoys for free what others pay thousands of dollars to see: kaleidoscope sunsets; saltwater vistas; and a life mostly unencumbered by noise, traffic and other big city burdens.

Yet Kawzinsky and her family face what was once unthinkable — leaving the Florida Keys. Climate change is making it more dangerous — and much more expensive — to live here.

Extreme heat, tidal flooding and a rekindled respect for hurricanes are driving out longtime residents and driving up the cost of basic needs: rent, food, water, power and gas.

It’s enough that Kawzinsky says she’s considering a move to Kissimmee, a sprawling Orlando suburb. The city is 60 miles away from the Atlantic coast. It might as well be a million miles from Big Pine Key.

“Of course, I want to stay here,” she said in a recent interview outside her home in the Avenues subdivision, developed in the 1970s as a middle-income neighborhood. “Big Pine is our community, and it’s home. Everybody I’ve ever known is from here.”

Or they were.

A steady outflow of low- and middle-income residents — beginning after Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and again after 2017’s Hurricane Irma — has demographically reshaped Big Pine Key. Longtime residents who work the service and labor jobs undergirding the Keys’ multibillion-dollar tourism economy are being squeezed out. New people with deeper pockets and greater mobility are moving in, often with cash in hand.

In the years after Wilma, Big Pine Key lost a fourth of its population, bottoming out at 3,777 people in 2012, according to Census Bureau data. It rebounded over the next decade — a relatively quiet period for Florida hurricanes — peaking at 5,339 in 2017. Then came Irma, the Keys’ second-strongest storm in a century. It whittled Big Pine Key’s population back down to 4,521 in three years, a 15 percent drop.

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