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Keys recover by working — almost non-stop — together. Police, soldiers make sure people returning belong there

U.S. Army National Guard soldier Pfc. Fabio Saldanha, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Deputy David Brummer and Pvt. Nicholas Redler stand guard at a checkpoint set up at the entrance of Spanish Main Drive on Cudjoe Key Sunday, Sept. 17.
U.S. Army National Guard soldier Pfc. Fabio Saldanha, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Deputy David Brummer and Pvt. Nicholas Redler stand guard at a checkpoint set up at the entrance of Spanish Main Drive on Cudjoe Key Sunday, Sept. 17.

Be it a first-responder, a utility lineman, a supply truck driver, National Guard soldier or a reporter, if your job deals with Hurricane Irma and its aftermath, you’ve been working non-stop for nearly two weeks.

“Twelve days ago,” Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Deputy David Brummer replied Sunday when asked the last time he had a day off.

Brummer was working in the hot afternoon sun manning a checkpoint at the entrance of Spanish Main Drive on Cudjoe Key.

The road leads to the oceanfront Venture Out subdivision. Not many homes there were spared Irma’s wrath. Most had at least some damage. Some houses and trailers were completely destroyed.

Brummer was joined at the checkpoint by two soldiers with the U.S. Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment.

Pfc. Fabio Saldanha, who works security in his day job, arrived in the Keys last week, but was activated Sept. 7 in anticipation Irma would deal a devastating blow to at least one Florida community. Saldanha’s unit was actually getting ready before that.

“Since the fourth to prepare,” he said.

Being activated is nothing new to Saldanha, who returned from a tour of duty in Africa in February. Since arriving in the Keys, he said he’s been most impressed by residents’ sense of community.

“It’s good to see so many people working together,” he said.

Indeed, when the county allowed reporters to view the badly hit Lower Keys last Wednesday, the damage seemed almost irreparable. By Sunday, through the efforts of the massive government and volunteer response — but also largely because of neighbors helping neighbors — conditions improved significantly, albeit there was still no power, water or sewage.

“This is what the Keys was always all about,” said Phil Waynick, whose friends helped him clean up the vast damage caused to his canal front home on Little Torch Key by wind and high storm surge. In return, he also helped his neighbors with their homes.

“We can recover a lot quicker this way,” Waynick said.

Pvt. Nicholas Redler also stood guard at the checkpoint. He too was struck by the common sight of people helping each other out.

“I’ve seen a lot of volunteers,” said Redler, who works as a St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office deputy when he’s not donning an Army infantry uniform and carrying an M-4. “A lot of volunteers.”

Dozens of similar checkpoints as the ones Brummer, Saldanha and Redler guarded were set up Keys-wide as the county allowed residents living in the Middle and Lower Keys to come back home beginning Saturday.

Their purpose is to make sure the people returning belong there. Looting hasn’t been widespread in Irma’s aftermath, but it has occurred. Much of the reason authorities were able to keep it at a minimum was the large law enforcement presence and the patrols of the 2,000 National Guard soldiers sent to the Keys.

A deciding factor in letting people who evacuated ahead of Irma to return was so they could begin cleaning up the mess the storm left, to tarp their roofs and to air out their homes to limit mold caused when surge-flooded structures sit shuttered in the stifling late summer, South Florida heat.

Law enforcement also wanted people home to protect what’s theirs.

“Hopefully, now that they’re here, they can watch out for their stuff,” Redler said. “We were just watching it for them while they were gone.”

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204

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