The message was clear from Florida Keys officials Monday morning, the day after Hurricane Irma ransacked the island chain: We’re closed until further notice.
The message was loudest coming from the Southernmost City:
“We cannot support another mouth in Key West,” City General Manager Jim Scholl said on a conference call with other local, state and federal officials Monday morning.
The reason is the city has no power, water or flushing toilets, he said.
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There is no way unless they want to wait around Bayview Park waiting to use the porta potties,” Scholl said.
Although the situation is more severe in Key West and the Lower Keys, Monroe County in general was not prepared for the rush of people who evacuated in the days prior to Irma’s arrival to return as of Monday, and may not be for at least a few days.
“We’re not prepared for the general population,” State Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo) said during Monday’s call.
Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt indicated during a Sunday evening conference call announcing a major United States Air Force and Air National Guard airlift of personnel and supplies into the Keys that the storm may have caused multiple fatalities.
He referred to the storm’s aftermath as a “humanitarian crisis” and said “disaster mortuary teams” were among the personnel flying in to Florida Keys Marathon Airport.
Independently confirming injury and fatality numbers was difficult Monday because police blocked road access to the Keys at Florida City and telephone and email communication to officials there was spotty at best.
Raschein said Army National Guard helicopter crews were en route to conduct rescue and recovery missions at difficult-to-reach places in the county.
“This is expected today,” she said Monday morning.
Irma crossed Cudjoe Key in the Lower Keys as a Category 4 storm at daybreak Sunday, Sept. 10, causing huge storm surges and wind damage. The day after, most of the Keys was without power, and only the Upper Keys, from the four-island Village of Islamorada north, had running water, said Kirk Zuelch, executive director of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, the public utility that pumps fresh water to the Keys from Florida City on the mainland.
“The pressure drops before Marathon. By the time it gets to Ramrod Key, there’s no pressure in the system,” Zuelch told the more than 100 people on the conference call.
The FKAA released a blast of water Monday morning to Key West to help pressurize the pipeline, but it was not potable and to be boiled before drinking.
Officials said Monday people wanting to return to the Keys will have to be patient.
“Every two hours we’ll know more,” said Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi. “You have to remember, we’re still in recovery mode.”
The first step in allowing people back in is making sure the transportation infrastructure can safely handle the load.
Jim Wolfe, secretary of Florida Department of Transportation’s District 4, which includes the Keys, said nine crews were heading into Monroe County Monday — five “cut and toss” teams and four two-man crews to inspect bridges connecting the small islands.
“We will declare what’s safe for transportation, but we won’t declare them open,” Wolfe said. “That’s a law enforcement decision.”
According to the officials on the call, vehicle transportation becomes more difficult the closer one gets to Key West. Wolfe said two more bridge inspection teams will have to fly in to Key West, probably on Tuesday.