Residents of the Florida Keys may be allowed in as far as Marathon as early as Saturday and at the latest by Sunday, Monroe County leaders said Friday, urging patience as they described in greater detail than ever before some of the widespread, systemic damage caused by Hurricane Irma.
There is no estimate yet for when people who live in the hardest-hit Lower Keys might be allowed to return. Key West has already had some electric and water service restored; the problem is getting there without interrupting the work that is being done to help the islands that took the brunt of the Category 4 storm and lack full power, water or sewer services.
When might Lower Keys residents get the OK to drive back down?
“I’m going to stick my neck out,” Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi estimated, “and say that, at the rate we’re going, probably another week or so.”
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Residents, who have sought all week to get home, might have finally resigned themselves. At 4 p.m. Friday, no cars were in line at the Mile Marker 74 checkpoint where a day earlier frustrated drivers pleaded with state troopers to let them through.
Conditions have undeniably improved over the last few days. Cell phone service, while still spotty, now extends more deeply into the Keys. More places have power. Utility and debris pickup crews dot U.S. 1, including a team working Friday from a small boat.
What emergency managers most fear: that the early recovery will be overwhelmed once people start returning to the 110-mile island chain en masse. Only about 10 percent of Lower Keys residents stayed through the storm, estimated Marty Senterfitt, the county’s emergency director.
“Our system is very fragile right now, and if we open the gates, it collapses,” he said. “You’re going to see the crisis escalate again.”
He and his staff worry about letting people in before basic safety needs can be met.
Local politicians and administrators have been inundated with calls from residents imploring them to let them in, a situation Senterfitt characterized as “painful.”
“They are my friends,” said Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent. “They’re burning up my phone.”
City of Key West officials want residents who evacuated for Hurricane Irma to start coming home beginning Sunday, but that may not be possible as work continues on the islands en route to the south.
The Southernmost City wasn’t hit as bad with wind and surge as other Lower Keys like Cudjoe, Summerland, Ramrod, Little Torch and Big Pine, all of which suffered severe damage that will take months or longer to repair.
“Our damage was significantly less than elsewhere and our recovery has been fairly speedy,” Key West City Manager Jim Scholl said during a Friday night conference call with local, state and federal officials. “We’re at the point where we can accept the return on Sunday.”
Since the Lower Keys in between Key West and Marathon are in such a disastrous state, Scholl said it would be a good idea to get Key West residents home so they could open hotels to house contractors needed to work in the badly hit areas.
Yet conditions in the Middle and Lower Keys are so frail that the county’s own emergency workers have been unable to make do, said Senterfitt, who estimated about a third of staff working round-the-clock at the county’s government center in Marathon have been left homeless.
That includes Senterfitt himself, Gastesi noted. The emergency director said he has been holed up in a hotel without power, taking saltwater-and-seaweed showers in an outdoor pool. He took a boiled-water shower — an upgrade — Thursday.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo delivered pizza from the mainland to the Emergency Operations Center on Friday, where Sheriff Rick Ramsay told them and Gov. Rick Scott that his deputies have “had a lot of looting in the south end.” But he insisted “we’ve been able to shut most of that down.”
Of the eight Keys deaths recorded during the storm, five were attributed to natural causes, Gastesi said. The other three were a bicyclist blown away by the wind in Key West, a man who apparently tried to ride out the storm in his boat, and an unexplained dead body the sheriff himself found on the side of the road.
Deputies are running a makeshift jail for looters, curfew violators, domestic-violence offenders and at least one person accused of aggravated assault, Ramsay said. He’s asked local retailers to abstain from selling alcohol.
The Keys’ unique geography — one road in, one road out — makes it difficult to truck in supplies in bulk and set up aid workers in temporary housing.
By Thursday, the Florida Department of Transportation had inspected 26 local bridges and cleared them for use.
Mariners Hospital, located in Tavernier in the Upper Keys, reopened Friday for the first time after the storm. The Baptist Health System’s chief operating officer, Wayne Brackin, gave Rubio and Curbelo a tour of the facility. The first floor was flooded with water between ankle and knee level, Brackin said. Doctors were treating typical post-storm cases, including a man who came across some sort of poison bushes and another who stepped on a nail. Both had been clearing their deforested properties.
Baptist’s Middle Keys Fishermen’s Hospital remains closed.
Rubio and Curbelo, whose district includes the Keys, surveyed Marathon, Big Pine Key and Tavernier, saying they wanted to ensure local needs were being met by federal agencies. Rubio’s office has started to open “recovery assistance centers” across the state, including Immokalee and the Upper Keys, to give residents a place to file claims and access federal, state and nonprofit aid.
“I think it’s the single largest restoration effort in history,” Rubio said of the Irma recovery.
Curbelo said he fears the public will soon stop paying attention to the Keys, which will continue to need help for a long time.
“Not many people will be covering the financial storm,” he said.
Marathon City Manager Chuck Lindsey said Friday that Marathon is still mostly without power, fuel and running water and warned those who return to be prepared to be self-sufficient: “Plan on no power. Plan on no water. Plan on the heat. Plan on the mosquitoes.”
For days, lower and mid-Key residents anxious to return home had queued up along the Overseas Highway by a checkpoint near Mile Marker 73, begging law enforcement officers to let them go home.
Tempers flared as officials offered scant details on why residents were not allowed in or when they might be able to be let back.
Displaced residents may have lost their possessions, but not their sense of humor. One vented on Change.org, which hosts various petitions and grievances.
“Hey Monroe County [Board of County Commissioners] we seceded once. We can do it again. Let us come home! Mutiny,” reads the petition that gathered more than 2,000 signatures in two days.