Hurricane Irma proved to be a harsh instructor but lessons learned in the major hurricane will shape changes in Florida Keys storm preparation and response, Monroe County emergency managers said Monday.
Most island residents and officials “did not have first-hand experience of what a Category 4 hurricane feels like.... A lot of institutional knowledge did not exist,” county Emergency Management Director Marty Senterfitt said. “It was a nasty, nasty storm.... There were a lot of positives and things we can do better.”
In the first of six feedback workshops asking for comments on the county’s efforts before and after Irma’s Sept. 10 landfall in the Lower Keys, a crowd of about 75 people at Key Largo’s Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center focused on issues with debris removal, faulty communications and a problematic re-entry process.
“We recognize that re-entry did not go the way we wanted it to go,” said Kimberly Matthews, county director of strategic planning. “That’s one of the things at the top of our agenda.”
Some returning residents did not hear about a post-storm curfew until they arrived at the Florida City entry point and were denied access, speakers said.
Others urged the county to allow workers from the mainland to join returning residents to assist with cleanup or prepare overnight facilities needed by displaced residents and out-of-county response crews. “We need workers to set everything up and get it working so people have a place to stay immediately the storm,” said a resort manager.
Senterfitt said officials receiving requests for re-entry exceptions “struggled with this every day. So much goes into re-entry, there is no exact answer on this.”
“We’ve got to be confident there will be at least a reasonable level of safety,” he said, noting downed power lines and toppled trees blocking. “There’s no power, no water.... You might expect to wait longer after a Category 4 storm.”
A working group with interested residents will form to focus on re-entry, he said. Other panels will review issues in more depth.
Upper Keys residents cited concerns over debris, some newly dumped, nearly four months since Irma.
People living near Rowell’s Waterfront Park at mile marker 104 described having to wear respiratory masks and goggles while piles of vegetative debris stacked higher than nearby condominiums created fumes and stench for weeks. “The grinders and trucks worked 18 hours a day,” said a neighbor. “And there were lots of rats.”
Actions required by the federal government to guard against fraud in waste-hauling bills slowed the disposal process at debris sites, Senterfitt said.
“Money always comes into play. There are very strict federal rules on how debris is handled.... You have to do it the right way to be reimbursed,” he said, adding that “the pendulum now needs to swing back” toward faster removal.
County Administrator Roman Gastesi said the Keys generated about 2.2 million cubic yards of debris in Hurricane Irma. Based on Monroe County’s typical year of 152,000 cubic yards of waste, “that’s about 14 and a half years worth of waste in three and a half months. Half of it came from the hardest-hit areas” in the Lower Keys.
Other issues voiced at the Key Largo meeting:
▪ A lack on information on gas availability for evacuation
▪ A need for improved communications, both of information content and more reliable telephone and internet connections; and
▪ Concern for homeless people and those lacking adequate transportation.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206
Upcoming Hurricane Irma response workshops are planned, from 6 to 8 p.m.:
▪ Today at the Harvey Government Center, County Commission chambers, 1200 Truman Avenue, Key West.
▪ Thursday at the Marathon Government Center, County Commission chambers, 2798 Overseas Highway.
▪ Monday at the Keys Community Church, 30300 Overseas Highway (in front of former Habitat ReStore), Big Pine Key, and
▪ Monday, Jan. 22: Sugarloaf Fire Station, 17175 Overseas Highway, Sugarloaf Key.