HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a firsthand look at Hurricane Irma's destruction when he made the drive from Key West to Homestead this week.
Displaced residents. Damaged homes. Downed trees. Debris piles.
It clearly affected NASCAR's most popular driver, who has a second home in Key West. Earnhardt took time to address the storm's aftermath while disclosing plans to race in the second-tier Xfinity Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2018.
"The Keys had a difficult past several months with Irma," Earnhardt said Friday. "We have a lot of friends down there that were affected by that. On the drive from Key West all the way up here, oh man, they are still really, really struggling. A lot of people still displaced. A lot of people lost their homes. It is still a very difficult and challenging situation for a lot of people in the middle Keys."
Irma made landfall Sept. 10 about 20 miles north of Key West. The mostly residential middle stretch of the island chain took the brunt of the hurricane's 130 mph winds. The area is still almost entirely brown, with debris piled alongside roads and mangroves stripped bare.
Tourism is a $2.7 billion industry in the Florida Keys, supporting more than 50 percent of all jobs in the island chain, according to Monroe County's Tourist Development Council.
Earnhardt also saw signs of recovery during his three-hour drive north on U.S. Route 1, noting that Key West's historic district, Old Town, had been reopened and ready for tourists for some time.
"It is as if they didn't miss a beat," Earnhardt said. "So, if everybody is wondering if the Keys are open for business, they are. And those people are ready to serve you. On the drive up here, every mile there is a make-shift sign out of plywood with whatever business name is painted on it with big "open" spray-painted on there.
"Those people are resilient and they need people to go down there and vacation and help the economy in that particular area. It looks like they are working hard to get back on their feet. That is really fun to see."
Earnhardt bought his Key West home in 2008 and has spent offseasons there since.
He surely will spend more time in the island city after he retires from full-time racing. His last Cup Series race takes place Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Earnhardt and his pregnant wife, Amy, also are filming a home renovation show for DIY Network in the Keys. The Earnhardts will star in four half-hour episodes scheduled to air in early 2018. Amy Earnhardt is an interior designer, and Junior is fairly handy. Together, they will overhaul a home in the Old Town area.
The series will follow their adventures in transforming the home.
"We just love it down there," Earnhardt said.
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