Hundreds of canals in the Florida Keys remain tainted with submerged and floating debris seven months after Hurricane Irma because finding the millions it will cost for cleanup has been as difficult as the debris removal, a county official said Tuesday.
"Marine debris, it's not easy," said Rhonda Haag, Monroe County's director of Sustainability and Projects. "None of the agencies like to fund it."
Originally, Monroe County, which had to take out a line of credit to keep operating after Irma, pegged the total cost of cleaning up all 513 canals from Irma at $52.3 million.
So far, the Keys has received a $10 million loan from the Department of Environmental Protection, with plans to reimburse the state through FEMA funding. Of that, $6 million is for unincorporated Monroe, while Marathon and Islamorada got $2 million each.
Of the estimated 100,000 cubic yards of debris in the canals, about 3,000 cubic yards have been removed since the work started in February.
"It's a long process to get any funding lined up," said Haag, at Tuesday's meeting in Marathon of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. "We're a small county, just 75,000 people. We have a lot of canals. We just can't afford to clean them up on our own."
Haag said canal cleanup couldn't have started any earlier because the land-strapped Keys had no staging areas to temporarily store the marine debris.
All of the canals in the Keys were affected to some degree by Irma, Haag said. Of the 513 canals, 333 are in unincorporated Monroe and the rest are in cities such as Marathon, and 97 have been deemed as suffering “high impact” by the hurricane, while 150 suffered “medium impact.”
Debris in some spots includes motor homes and roofs of trailers, Haag said, showing several photos of canals on Big Pine Key, the Lower Keys area that was among the hardest-hit areas.
FEMA is strict about reimbursement for marine debris cleanup: It covers navigational hazards only, meaning you can’t go to the bottom of all the canals to clear out the junk, and counties and municipalities must be able to prove debris removed came from Irma.
Haag said the county is preparing to apply for cleanup reimbursement from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, a program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture but only 20 percent of the Keys' canals would be eligible.
Monroe County has borrowed $40 million since Irma struck Sept. 10 and estimates the total storm-related expenses at nearly $104 million.
The first check the county received from FEMA and the Florida Department of Emergency Management was for $603,988 and arrived April 13. Officials expect to receive a check for $2.2 million soon.