August and September 2017 was unprecedented for hurricanes in the coastal areas of the U.S. and beyond. Harvey and Irma were the houseguests from hell. These storms delivered a one-two punch we won’t soon forget. Hurricane Harvey pummeled and parked over Houston, dumping torrential rains — leaving the core of Texas’ largest urban area a broken shell. The Texas Gulf Coast took a beating, too.
However, Irma was a bit more fickle. She left a swath of destruction across Florida and beyond, but many of the damaged properties were vacation homes — “Second Shelters” we like to call them. Here’s a look at how one Dallas couple weathered the storm, literally. Their retreat, their happy place and sanctuary is located in Marathon, Florida, the middle key of the Florida Keys. How they came through it, and what the future holds for the people and place is nothing short of inspirational.
Gary C. Evans, Chairman and CEO of Energy Hunter Resources, is an avid outdoorsman and sport fisherman. After an exhaustive search about four years ago, he found the perfect home away from home. Located in Marathon, Florida, Gary’s retreat is on the Atlantic coast, about 84 miles from the beaches of Cuba. An important addition to the impressive beach house was a vacant lot across the road. He purchased it as well to ultimately shelter his boats and other watercraft in the security of a manmade canal.
Gary’s Marathon home was designed and built by Amedeo D’Ascanio. D’Ascanio and family operate a much-loved design and construction firm in Marathon, D’Asign Source, a local favorite throughout the Keys. D’Ascanio’s wife, Lynn, is a wedding and event planner. This would come in handy later.
No expense was spared in constructing the authentic Mediterranean three-story beachfront manse of just under 6,000 square feet.
Dark beams, Venetian bronze fixtures, towering ceilings, and swirling stairs capped by a terra cotta tile roof added a casual confidence to the impressive home.
Throw in a generous patio, casita, and pool, and as Gary explains, “It feels very Caribbean.”
As the real estate mantra goes, location, location, location… Gary can be wheels up in Dallas, landing at the Marathon Airport about three hours later, and in less than 5 minutes experience the bliss of his southern sanctuary.
It’s important to know Gary’s home, and many of the newer homes in the Keys are required to withstand Category 5 hurricanes. Stringent Category 5 construction can as much as double construction costs. Homes built in this manner resist, and in many instances are impervious to storm surge, high winds, and impacts from flying debris. The windows of Category 5-built homes are deemed “missile-impact” resistant. Walls and foundations are often constructed of solid concrete. Buyers and residents of coastal areas certainly hope their beloved houses are never tested. Irma was that ultimate test.
So, about two years ago, enter Ashley Halsey in Dallas. The pair quickly became Big D’s favorite “it” couple.
Often spotted dining at Javier’s and seated courtside at the Mavericks, Ashley was “game,” so to speak, for all of Gary’s adventures. This includes his fish camp in Louisiana. “We would love to spend more time in Marathon,” Ashley sighs. “We are always sad when we leave.”
Both Gary and Ashley are quick to point out Marathon’s exceptional offerings. Ninety minutes to the glamour of South Beach, and less than an hour to Key West, Marathon is the perfect place in between. Hence the Middle Key moniker. One of their favorite local haunts is a restaurant called Island Fish Company. They love the quirky independent spirit of the Keys. “We and everyone else down here are on island time,” explains Ashley.
One of the most charming aspects of the entire property was a broken, twisted tree on the water’s edge of their beach. The victim of a maritime accident that collided on the beach, the tree was all but dead. Two barely living limbs sprouted akimbo from the trunk. The little tree was an attractant to Gary and seemingly all passersby.
Beachcombers liked to pose with the tree, and even on it. Gary and Ashley posted a sign that read, “Please Don’t Climb On Me.” The couple had individually weathered personal and professional challenges before they met. The tree was a metaphor of sorts. Life can beat a person down, and bend a soul to the point of breaking, but if one tiny leaf survives, life goes on.
Fast forward to September 10, 2017. Irma was bearing down on the Keys. Gary and Ashley nervously checked the beach house’s security cameras constantly as the storm approached. Gary took a screen shot.
The sky was an unusual hue. The Atlantic was calm, and they wondered if they would ever see the house in Marathon again. Ashley updated social media. And they anxiously waited.
Around 8 p.m., the cameras showed rain blowing in all directions, including up. The palms swayed violently. Stuff, unknown debris, possibly parts of other houses flew in and out of the camera’s view. By 10 p.m., the camera feed was completely lost. Gary and Ashley were resigned that their little tree would be lost to Irma’s wrath.
It would be several agonizing days before they knew the status of the house. The only aircraft allowed in and out of Marathon were military.
They landed at the only open airstrip, Summerland Key. The 25-mile drive to their home was harrowing. Marathon, as well as every other community, was in ruin. They felt ill.
Once at the house, Gary was relieved. The house was standing, not only standing but had little damage. There was no water inside the main house, but the pool was completely filled with sand. The landscaping was really battered, yet their paradise was in better shape than 90 percent of the homes around them.
The tatty little tree stubbornly remained. It was evident the storm surge had engulfed the already fragile wooden skeleton. It was even more scruffy than before. But it was still there.
An eerie realization crept over Ashey as she walked block after block trying to find someone, anyone to connect their electricity. It was absolutely silent. She was the only person in sight, perhaps for miles, and the silence was deafening. Occasionally, a deep rumble crawled ominously overhead. This were military helicopters. “You don’t realize the background hum of our lives,” Ashley remembers. “Electricity, traffic, or whatever. This was creepy.”
They pitched in where they could, but without power or resources, there was little they were able to do. For the first time ever, they were relieved to return to the city upon leaving Marathon.
As is the case in many difficult circumstances, Ashley and Gary found their true north. The little tree was more than a symbol. It was a mantra of sorts. These two branches were going to be one trunk.
Gary secretly bought Ashley an engagement ring just months after they started dating. He plotted and planned their engagement to the tiniest detail. The two rode in a horse-driven Cinderella carriage after he popped the question over the holidays.
The wedding will be in June, down in the Keys. The landscaping won’t be perfect, but it’s on the mend. It will take years for everything to come back as it was before Irma. But Gary and Ashley have years. And they hope their little tree will bear witness to all of it.