hurricane irma

Hurricane Irma’s Aftermath: An interview with Tim McBride, the Saltwater Cowboy

Editor’s Note: During the 80’s, Tim was one of the biggest cannabis smugglers in American history, and you can read all about his exploits in his book Saltwater Cowboy: The Rise and Fall of a Marijuana Empire. To donate to his GoFundMe page, “Everglades City Irma Relief” Fund, click here]

As the East Coast deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, we had a chance to talk to our friend Tim McBride, aka the Saltwater Cowboy, who calls Florida home.

Tim's Home in Florida on Weather Radar

Currently, his entire community is without power and likely will be for weeks, but he was able to speak to us on the phone to give us a first-hand account of the devastation that Hurricane Irma has wrought.

He has set up a GoFundMe page, the Everglades City Irma Relief Fund to help his community, and he told us why he didn’t evacuate, how cannabis is helping him cope during these hard times, and what this means for Florida’s future.

Cannabis Life Network: Tim, could you please tell us how you’ve been dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma?

Tim: It’s quite shocking, really. I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes. Wilma was the last one, and Andrew was the big one back in the early 90’s. But you could put Hurricanes Wilma, Andrew, and Charlie all together against this one and it still wouldn’t compare to it.

The eyewall made landfall on Cudjoe Key, in the Florida Keys, and it was moving slow, about 6 mph, and it was just tearing shit up.

90% of the homes in the keys were either destroyed or severely damaged.

It made its way up to the shallow waters in Florida Bay and we hit the eyewall at about 140 mph winds, and I got to tell you, you’ve never heard anything quite like that.

My beautiful little property and my beautiful little city have street lights still out, but power is steadily coming back on. Gas stations are finally starting to come up and there are lines 5 miles long getting to gas stations where there’s gas and electricity to pump gas.

It’s crazy shit, man. Everything around my home is absolutely destroyed. I’ve got trees laying around my house; trees laying across my driveway; and one tree fell over and pulled up my entire concrete driveway.

It looks like a bomb went off.

Tree Falls on Shed

Did all your friends and family get through it safely?

Yeah. The big thing about this storm is there were no deaths contributed directly to the landfall in our area. Everyone was very well prepared and evacuated.

There was 15 to 30 miles of traffic on the Interstate trying to get out of there and we knew it was going to be bad-the little town I was raised in was under 8-12 feet of water.

Did you evacuate?

No, I stayed. Where I built my home, I’m about 8 miles out of town here in Estero, and I have orchards around me with some pine trees. I’m outside of the flood area- that’s the most important thing. The worst thing in a storm like this is people don’t die from the wind blowing- they die from drowning when the storm surges come up, like the 8-12 feet of water that covered both islands down here and wiped out all of my friend’s homes.

But here where I am- I was in the land development business for a few years after I got out of prison back in the early 90’s- I built my property up high so I was about 4 feet higher than normal and the water didn’t come anywhere near my home but I have about 4 feet of water surrounding my house. It’s like an island.

The power’s out, and a tree in my backyard fell over onto the house and it’s still there. I haven’t been able to get it off yet.

How has the response from the government and the emergency disaster relief been so far?

Well, I’m not seeing it, to be honest with you. They were very well prepared for it, with thousands of electricians coming in to fix things up before the storm, but as far as relief, water, food, and supplies…

The National Guard is buzzing around here now but there’s not really a lot that they can do until the water goes away and the power starts to come back and they’re mostly clearing debris and shit like that out of the roadways.

You can’t drive anywhere around here without seeing a tree that’s been snapped in half, or the top’s gone off of it, or there’s no leaves because the wind scoured all the trees.

So yeah it’s not a pretty sight, man. I’m not expected to have power for another 3 maybe 4 weeks. Or internet. The only reason why I’m able to communicate now is because yesterday morning, AT&T finally, somehow, (I don’t know if they connected with other networks or what) got some 4G power so I can get some messages and finally call some people and let them know what the fuck’s going on.

I took a beating dude. My daughter’s window in her room blew out and I had steel storm shutters on the windows and it still blew the windows out.

Was your family with you when it hit or did they evacuate?

We were all here- me, my daughter, her boyfriend, and a friend of mine that was staying here. Every entrance and every doorway had a steel shutter.

Warning to Looters

Do you feel you should have evacuated? Do you second guess your decision to stay or are you glad you stayed in one spot?

I’m kind of glad I stayed because the people that evacuated are having holy hell trying to get back to their houses. Those underlying areas near the coast, which is what southwest Florida mostly is, are little, residential coastal communities. Everglades City and Chokoloskee, where I grew up, are two little islands, and are only 6 feet above sea level at the highest point.

Those coastal areas, if you’re near a canal or river or tributary like that, when the hurricane’s approaching the way it did us, the initial winds are blowing from the east to west. So Miami gets the storm surge first and it’s pulling the water up onto the beaches.

At the same time it’s taking our water and pulling it off our beaches on the west. So you could literally stand on Fort Myers or Naples Beach out here on our coast and you’d be 200 yards away from the water when it’s usually right at your feet.

When the eyewall went over us it turned the wind back in the opposite direction- so now it was coming from the west to the east- it blew the water up 12 feet!

It went from being 100 yards offshore to 12 feet above sea level, and flooded the entire southwest coast of Florida.

I’ve been here 40 years, I’ve been through dozens of hurricanes, and I have NEVER seen one like this. It was fucked up. There’s no other way to put it.

That’s insane. So what did you do to prepare in the days before the storm hit?

All I could do really was put the shutters up on my house and stock up on weed as best I could. 7 days before the storm hit us, I’m going through the grocery store doing my average week’s groceries and I forgot about water, so I was like “Damn!” and ran back into the store and there wasn’t one bottle of fucking water anywhere!

And I asked the guy, “What the fuck’s going on?” and he said there was a storm coming and I’m like it’s seven fucking days away!

I did eventually get some water but it’s starting to become a struggle because my daughter is terribly allergic to molds and mildew, and if she’s not in an air conditioned environment, she’s going to have to go to the hospital.

So I have a generator that runs my house, that has to run 24 hours a day and fortunately, I had that when I built the house because my neighbors would always talk about how the power would go out from time to time.

The 15,000 watt generator I’ve got powering my house, keeping us in relative comfort, is costing me on average about $60 a day.

It’s a struggle just to go into town, but it’s our daily routine. My daughter and her boyfriend, myself or my friend, we drive all around southwest Florida looking for a gas station that’s open that doesn’t have more than a 3 mile line just to fill up 4 gas cans every day.

It’s not good dude and I’m gonna have to do that for the next, who knows, month.

At some point I might have to evacuate the house and get out because I can’t keep the radiator running and my daughter has to have clean air. So we’re pretty screwed dude.

But as bad as I’ve got it, some of us got it worse than others- particularly my friends in the Everglades.

They lost everything. Their houses are gone completely. It scoured the island clean. We’re talking two little villages of just about 500 people, in Chokoloskee and Everglades City, where I grew up.

I started a GoFundMe page for relief, and one of the ladies that’s running for Senate is going to meet me down there to see what she can do. I’ve got friends who are ready to fly supplies over to the Everglades City airport, where they just finished cleaning 3 feet of mud off the runway.

I also just got off the phone with the producer I’m working with for Viceland to help get the word out and get these people some help in one way or another.

This is the kind of shit you always see happening elsewhere like in Houston and shit like that but it’s very real and it’s happening to us, and I’m slap dab in the middle of it. I’m not better off than anybody else and I got hit just as hard but my focus is not on me- it’s on my friends that lost everything.

I still got my stuff. They don’t have homes anymore.

Are you worried about Hurricane Jose?

Not after this one. I just don’t give it a thought anymore. It’s a fact of life. I’ve been through 5 hurricanes in this very house.

No Float Boat

Do you stay there and rebuild for a 6th one or do you move somewhere outside of a hurricane zone? 

Changing geography doesn’t change your circumstance when it comes to Mother Nature. You can move to the Midwest and get pummeled by a fucking tornado. You move out west, you can get rocked by an earthquake. Or a volcano could go off. Disasters happen no matter where you are- it’s not just Florida.

It’s hit Georgia, North and South Carolina- the entire East Coast is susceptible to these types of storms.

Getting out is something that’s not on my mind. This is my home, where I grew up and raised my kids.

Because it’s a crap shoot. If you know the storms and understand what they’re about and how they operate, the experience helps you. I know how to fix my house up and protect my house as best as I could.

I got a busted window, a tree fell on my house, no power, and trees fallen all over my yard- but all that will come back in time.

But the people are still the same, they have big hearts- of course there’s assholes still out there that will fuck you in line to get gas, but you have to have the good with the bad.

But as far as leaving, I’m staying brother. It’ s just something that you have to deal with.

Before and after picture of the tiny Baptist Church on Chokoloskee Island, Florida and the hight of the water on Chokoloskee Island itself.
Before and after picture of the Baptist Church on Chokoloskee Island, Florida and the height of the water on the church

So how do you feel the government’s response compares to their response to Hurricane Katrina?

Well, we took a backseat with Katrina, with what happened in New Orleans, they of course got the spotlight but people fail to recognize that we got hit by Katrina first.

She crossed right over south Florida before she hit the gulf and turned north and we had to deal with what we have to deal with now, just not on this scale.

But with regards to help from the government, they can only get here when the area becomes accessible, and in the first 2 days, the storm was still climbing out of Florida.

It was a very slow moving event and they had to wait that out which means that it was 3 days before we saw the National Guard or any electricians or power people because the winds have to die down below a certain speed- I think it’s 35 mph.

They won’t even come out of their houses until the winds die down.

After two or three days the emergency services start to trickle in.  With Katrina it was the same scenario- you can’t just jump in there when it’s happening or else you’ll be in the line of fire.

Unfortunately, people don’t understand that. They want help NOW.

It’s trickling in, and President Trump was here in our town today with the director of FEMA. So we’re starting to see the power lines get cleared along with other dangers so now we’ve got access to the streets.

So as far as government response, they’re doing the best they can as far as I’m concerned.

Aside from your GoFundMe page, is there any other way people can help?

Unless you go online and search for any kind of relief fund or Red Cross, there’s nothing that jumps out- I’m disconnected from everything. I have no TV or radio, just my phone.

I’m a one-man show and that’s how it’s always been.

My GoFundMe page was just started last night and I put $9000 in there, and I’ve got about $500 so far and I’m just hoping to get a steamroller effect because these people can’t wait. They need help right now.

They’re the ones that I”m concerned about.

Looking towards the future, are these hurricanes and superstorms becoming a regular thing?

Unfortunately, and like that cliche, it’s becoming a ‘new normal’. Sea levels are rising. It’s obvious and evident because the first thing that came out of my mouth when I knew the storm was headed this direction was the storm surge in Miami in the late 70’s. Back when I first came to south Florida we’d trip over to Miami and hit Joe’s Stone Crabs on Brickell Avenue, and at high tide the waves were 2 feet from the roadway.

The water actually comes up on Brickell Ave. now, which is the main road in downtown Miami. Everyday. So tell me the climate’s not changing. Try to convince me that it’s not happening- you can’t.

During the storm, the water came up 6 feet in downtown Miami. And I read a very compelling article in Rolling Stone a few years ago, where a gentleman was talking about the infrastructure and future planning of Miami, and it’s going to look essentially like Venice, Italy- and it will happen in my children’s lifetime.

The Everglades is going to become an inland sea. The storm events are getting worse, they’re getting bigger and more significant in terms of damages. Housing and building codes are changing drastically but you can only build a home to withstand so much, until they become so overpriced it’s not worth it to live in the area any longer.

So yeah, climate change is a big deal. It’s happening and we’re seeing the effects of it in South Florida where we’re right at sea level.

Is there any option to build shelters or go underground?

No, nothing goes underground here. You dig a hole 6 feet in the ground and it fills up with water. I was in construction for 15 years when I got out of prison in the 90’s and our elevation, according to the National Geodetic Survey, is at mean sea level, and we built homes at 11 feet above sea level. And the waves that came with the storms were 20 feet.

That’s how close we are to disaster. All it takes is a weather event like this and the place goes underground.

Looking at your instagram page, you opened the door and went out in it. Why?

Yeah I did a livestream. I just wanted people to feel the effects and get an idea of what we were experiencing, and as I was standing in the 100 mph winds, I was trying to stand and it felt like little rocks were hitting my face.

When I was out charging my phone in the car, the wind gusts felt as if it was going to flip the car over. I wanted to give people a sense of the power of what was taking place.

At the time my trees were still standing, and that was 3 hours before the eyewall got to us. We went through 6-7 hours of winds like that, just roaring.

Is your dog ok?

[In reference to his Instagram post that said his dog was lost] 

Tim's driveway before and after Irma with Tim's dog who sheltered with Tim & is fine
Tim’s driveway before and after Irma with Tim’s dog who sheltered with Tim & is fine

Yeah, I should have given a little more thought to how I worded that. She doesn’t recognize her own yard- that’s what I was trying to say. She was lost in the fact that she didn’t know where she was.

The yard she goes out and craps in everyday wasn’t there anymore. But she’s good and she rode it out pretty well.

Like I said, there weren’t any deaths in southwest Florida attributed to the storm, and as the years go by they get better and better with the logistics in regards to evacuating and things like that.

If there’ s a silver lining, it’s the preparation, and the people who are watching and tracking these things are getting better at their predictions in terms of landfall. It’s very significant and important information for us. A lot of people live in flood-prone areas and don’t realize it, and as I mentioned earlier, that’s the killer right there.

Was there anything else you’d like to say about Irma or the rebuilding or what you want to see in the the future?

For the future, I’m already seeing it happen. It’s the resiliency of people in any country that suffers any kind of natural disaster- just keep your head down and keep moving forward.

Life goes on. It’s inevitable that these things are going to take place and it’s part of the learning curve for the area in which we live. You get a strong storm, you get hit in the face, and we haven’t gotten hit like this since Hurricane Donna which brought a 20 foot storm surge into town.

They’re figuring it out to the point where they’re starting to save lives. Property doesn’t matter. It can be redug, and it’s very significant that there were no deaths attributed to the storm.

Has cannabis helped you deal with the stress?

Yeah, of course. You can sit there with no lights, no power- nothing but that ungodly noise I can’t impart to you with any justice. So to just to sit there stoned- it absolutely does help. Stress-wise, anxiety-wise; it just puts a mellow cap on it.

Tim, thanks so much for talking to us about this. To get a first-hand account puts it in an entirely different perspective.

Anytime, I’m available. Any way that you guys can help, if you can push my GoFundMe page, it’s greatly appreciated. None of this is going to me because it’s not about me. It’s about my friends.

And thanks to Craig from Expert Joints and Cannabis Life Network. You’re my people.