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Vespa as survival tool

September 19, 2017
Key West Irma damage

Hurricane Irma hit Key West, Fla. hard (Michael Beattie photos)

Michael Beattie, aka Conchscooter, is the writer, photographer and publisher of Key West Diary, which started out as Key West Vespa. He is also a 911 dispatcher for the Key West Police Dept., which required him to remain at work while Hurricane Irma inflicted its damage on the Caribbean and Florida. His story and pictures of the aftermath follow the jump.

Michael's Vespa S

“What?” said my neighbor as he watched me get on my 2008 Vespa S150 for the 25-mile ride back to Key West.”You riding that moped on these streets?” He had a point… things were a bit rough right after Irma landed. And in Key West where everyone rides 50cc scooters a 60-mph 150 is indistinguishable from a 35-mph model.

So how good is a Vespa as a survival tool when civilization teeters on the brink? In normal times I use the scooter to commute on the Overseas Highway, where it’s perfect. Speed limits vary between 45 and 55 mph and the Vespa allows me to keep up with the normal flow of traffic. With the wind at my back the 150cc motor sends me down the flat, straight road at up 65 mph (showing 70 on the speedo). It does not allow me to get into trouble by passing or speeding in the carefree manner my motorcycle allowed. My Triumph Bonneville got trashed by salt water and it does not look likely to be a survivor; with two Vespas at my disposal it doesn’t look like I’ll be replacing it at this phase of my life.

Vespa S on the Overseas Highway

Vespas are known for their metal body and sturdy construction, and their load carrying ability. On my rides checking neighborhoods after the Category Four storm ravaged the Keys, I came across all manner of things, including pallets on Sugarloaf Key (below). The National Guard dropped off supplies for survivors. I easily loaded a box of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat; portable army food. —Ed.) onto the seat.

Pallets of emergency supplies

My MRE carrier.

Vespa S as beast of burden

Fuel: I found that riding at 50 mph indicated (45mph actual) I saved a ton of gas. The fuel gauge on on the S150 is quite accurate, so it encouraged me to keep my speed down… quite aside from the objects laying around on the roadways in the early days. I should have filled a five gallon jug before the storm but I was stupid and forgot. I know better…

Shell gas station

Filling up via gas can

I had to round up some jugs, find a gas station that was open, and be very careful about how much I burned. This is a big issue for a scooter as survival tool.

I could have used a front rack on the Vespa with a one or two gallon jug strapped on, just for peace of mind.

I did strap a jug on the floorboard, but I like to keep that area clear in normal use.

I always carry a tire repair kit under the seat and flat tires were constantly on my mind. The ease of use of the Vespa, the low weight the open body make it much more suitable than a motorcycle. Then there is the fact that the Bonneville has tubes in its tires. A flat would be truly awkward in these circumstances.

City street

To a population used to riding around in giant trucks and SUVs the idea of using a 230-lb (104-kg) scooter to get around in the best of times seems weird. In a crisis those big trucks look so self-important with their heavy-duty whatnot. Then this hairy old hobbit comes rolling by on a moped. Oops!

Wet street, with a rooster

The scooter got me where I wanted to go. I did not drive through flooded areas but I dodged downed trees and power lines, and managed gravel and sand just fine. Having experience is decidedly a plus in these conditions.

Downed wire

One thing drivers of trucks don’t have to worry about is decapitation. Wires down are a serious issue for a rider after a storm and you need to keep a sharp eye out. Plus wires can come down later even if the road was open previously. This was one of my biggest fears.

The hospital was closed after Irma as there was no running water in Key West, so an injury could be severely inconvenient. Or fatal. That was always at the forefront of my mind when I was riding or doing anything else.

Key deer habitat

Some heavy-duty wires were so low down they even kept me out of my street. Luckily these were so thick I had no trouble spotting them:

Downed light pole

Key West hitchhiker

I even picked up a kid hitchhiking and gave him a 15-mile ride toward Miami. Friends convinced him not to evacuate. Lack of water, power and hope convinced him to hitch home to Miami. He seemed ill-equipped to cope with the end of civilization.

Florida is a no-helmet law state (for adults) and it was easy enough to pop him on the solo seat for a short ride. The Vespa did sterling work.

So how did my Vespa survive the storm?

Well, it was small enough to fit in the elevator at work (below), so I took it to the upper floor to keep it safe from potential flooding.

I wondered who would yell at me for parking in front of the detectives bureau. I guess people had other things on their minds. There were only two dozen of us left to ride out the storm.

Riding through the hallway

Then of course I wondered what I would do if the storm in some way knocked out our elevators. Would my Vespa be stranded upstairs? In stressful times we worry about anything and everything.

Indoor parking

The fun factor is always there, so if you enjoy riding getting on the Vespa can be a bit of an escape. My wife and dog were safely evacuated, so I only had myself to look after. This made the Vespa perfect for these two weeks of isolation.

The Weather Channel was on the scene

The Weather Channel said this was a non-survivable event in the Florida Keys. When I found their truck stuck with a flat tire I let my feelings be known about the way they rated my chances of survival. (it’s never a good thing when The Weather Channel sends people to your town. If they send Jim Cantore, you’re in real trouble. —Ed.)

Palm trees and the Vespa

In the end I have to say my decision to keep and use the Vespa as survival tool was perfect for me.

On the other hand, I am a confident rider after half a century in the saddle and that makes it easy for me to choose to use a Vespa in circumstances others may think bizarre.

The more I ride these ultra-smooth, perfectly reliable modern Vespas the less I miss the 2-stroke geared Vespas of my past. These machines go and go, and they do it well.

—Michael Beattie, aka Conchscooter  keywestdiary.com

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2 Comments
  1. Mark Morris permalink
    September 19, 2017 2:46 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. I am glad this fellow is OK.

  2. September 20, 2017 1:10 pm

    I’m older like you and I’m considering getting a scooter to use in my town, Buffalo, NY. They are good at clearing the streets of snow, etc. in the winter, but I’ll have to see what brands are good in the cold weather, down to, say 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

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