The bad news is the Florida Keys got hit by a damaging Category 4 hurricane in September, the first time in almost 60 years the island chain felt such a powerful storm directly, and the first time since 2005’s Hurricane Wilma it was seriously impacted by a tropical system.
The good news is, we now know what a Category 4 hitting the Keys looks like in the modern era, which will help first responders, utilities, government officials and residents prepare for hurricane seasons to come, Monroe County’s Emergency Management Director Marty Senterfitt said this week.
In the second of six feedback meetings conducted by county officials asking residents how the Keys could have better prepared and recovered from Sept. 10’s Hurricane Irma, Senterfitt, said he was proud and impressed with the county, state and federal response to the powerful storm. He added, “After the event’s over, there are always areas for improvement.”
“I’ve worked with some really fine people in Monroe County who really knew what they’re doing and stepped up and did a really great job,” Senterfitt said at the meeting held at the Village of Islamorada’s Founders Park Tuesday.
The roughly 30 people who attended the meeting were asked by Kimberly Matthews, the county’s director of strategic planning, to prioritize areas that need to be improved for the next storm.
“We all know we did things right, we know we all did things we probably wouldn’t do the next time,” Matthews said.
Most of those at the meeting agreed the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative, Keys Energy and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority did steadfast work restoring power and water to the Keys.
Subjects of major complaints were the availability, or lack thereof, of fuel; getting out accurate information to both those who stayed behind and those who heeded the call to evacuate; debris removal after the storm — which is still an issue; and the process of letting those who left back in in the days after the storm.
For re-entry, Senterfitt said there is no easy answer and no solution that will satisfy everyone. However, it’s an issue likely to be an albatross to local officials hoping as many people will evacuate the next time the Keys are in a major storm’s cross hairs.
The county delayed letting residents, and later tourists, back into the Keys for both safety and logistical reasons. Officials did not want people to clog U.S. 1, the Keys’ only highway, while it was still clearing the road and while first responders were going house-to-house checking on the well-being of those who stayed behind.
Power lines were strewn throughout residential roads, and restoring electricity to storm-damaged homes poses fire hazards.
“The quicker we let people in, the longer it takes to restore electricity,” Senterfitt said.
Also, the Keys were packed with first responders and law-enforcement officers sent from around the country who were speeding up and down U.S. 1 in their vehicles, presumably heading to emergencies. Simply put, according to Senterfitt, it just wasn’t safe to be here.
Senterfitt, a retired firefighter, said the government’s No. 1 responsibility is to protect its citizens, and the Keys were too dangerous for people to return for most of the week after Irma passed.
“We’re not going to let you go into a burning building,” he said. “Well, this is a burning building on a macro level.”
Key Largo residents and business owners were allowed to come back on Tuesday, Sept. 12. Officials kept the Middle and Lower Keys, which were much harder hit, off limits until Sunday, Sept. 17.
Those who returned were warned of primitive living conditions that in some areas of the Lower Keys remain today. Returners were told to bring plenty of water, fuel, food and other supplies.
Confused about re-entry policy, hundreds of people drove to Florida City in the days after Irma struck only to be stopped by police and National Guard soldiers at the checkpoint set up at the entrance of the 18-Mile Stretch. Since fuel was scarce statewide, as were hotel rooms, scores of people ended up stranded in Florida City, growing more impatient as the hours and days passed. Because of the chaos and inconvenience, many people who complied with the mandatory evacuation before Irma vowed not to leave the Keys next time.
Nevertheless, Senterfitt said re-entry will likely still be a drawn-out, systematic process the next time a storm hits the Keys and an evacuation is ordered. “There is no one-size fits all solution,” he said.
Ron Cole, an Islamorada resident who mostly praised the county’s response to Irma and after, said those who experienced not being allowed back to their homes and those who stayed but heard the horror stories from evacuees are likely to stay put the next time.
“If that’s what people know, they’re not going to leave,” Cole said.
Islamorada Councilwoman Deb Gillis said the re-entry situation would have been worse if the eye of the storm passed over Key Largo rather than Cudjoe Key in the Lower Keys. Many areas of the Middle and Lower Keys were devastated by Irma, but Key Largo, while sustaining heavy damage, was not hit as hard. This allowed easier passage along the highway and for a quicker recovery Keys-wide as crews and first responders were able establish staging areas as they made their way down U.S. 1.
“If the storm came through Key Largo, there’s no way of getting to Key West,” Gillis said.