We are at the halfway point of the planned six feedback meetings being conducted by county officials to gather resident feedback about how the Keys could have better prepared and recovered from Sept. 10’s Hurricane Irma.
These quasi-town hall meetings, conducted so far in Key Largo, Islamorada and Marathon have been mostly productive and civil, but keep in mind county officials have yet to get in front of the hardest hit residents, those in the Lower Keys. Those discussions are likely to be more agitated and challenging for County Director of Strategic Planning Kimberly Matthews and Emergency Management Director Marty Senterfitt.
Even without these meetings, we learned firsthand what a Category 4 hitting the Keys looks like in the modern era, and this will help first responders, utilities, government officials and residents prepare for the next one, which hopefully is far, far in the future.
Regardless of one’s own personal situation, we should all be proud and impressed with how the county, state and feds responded to the powerful storm. And Senterfitt has been quick to acknowledge that “there are always areas for improvement.”
The hottest topic has been and will likely continue to be re-entry. Debris removal, availability of fuel and communication to both those who stayed behind and those who heeded the call to evacuate have been frequently brought up too, but residents have been passionate about wanting access to their homes sooner than they were able.
The condition of the county on September 10 was as if a bomb had been dropped. U.S. 1 was largely impassable, power lines were strewn throughout residential roads, sewers were non-functional, harmful debris was everywhere, and there were only a limited amount of first responders in place. The county delayed letting residents, and later tourists, back into the Keys for both safety and logistical reasons.
Fire hazards existed while electricity was being restored to storm-damaged homes. If folks were allowed earlier re-entry it would slow the restoration process. “The quicker we let people in, the longer it takes to restore electricity,” Senterfitt said.
If earlier re-entry were allowed, those trying to survey their home for damage would have been on their own. Residents who injured themselves seriously on their property, with so much dangerous shrapnel present, wouldn’t have had any 911 support or any responders around to transport them to a hospital on the mainland.
While not as widely concerning in these meetings as resident re-entry, it’s fair to say that allowing visitors in on Oct. 1, the day Monroe County officials decided the Florida Keys would “officially” open to tourists, was controversial if not outright premature. But while visitors didn’t exactly blow our doors down that day or shortly thereafter, they arrived to a less-than-ready area.
We understand and support the county’s need to regain the critical tourism component of our economy, but that decision wasn’t in sync with the same caution applied for resident re-entry.
Ultimately, it was the county’s responsibility to protect its citizens, and the Keys were too dangerous for people to return after the storm passed. Primitive living conditions were everywhere, that in some areas of the Lower Keys remain today. Returnees would have likely been under-prepared with essential supplies like water, fuel and food. And again, few in-county options for replenishment.
We understand residents who say the next time they will not evacuate because re-entry was so taxing. But in any future scenario, access to basic services and utilities will be as limited for non-evacuees as for early returnees. And while those that didn’t evacuate may have come through this major storm’s cross hairs mostly unscathed, the next time may well be a different outcome.