Before Irma struck last September, it had been 12 years since a hurricane had a significant impact on the Keys.
As Irma approached, it became clear that not only was the lucky streak over for South Florida and the Keys, but the Category 4 storm would be stronger than any system that had impacted the 125-mile long island chain in decades.
While Hurricane Wilma in 2005 flooded the Keys, few were ready for the devastation Irma would bring.
Lower Keys like Big Pine, Little Torch, Summerland and Cudjoe looked like war zones after Irma’s eye crossed on Sept. 10. The City of Marathon took a major beating, and the Village of Islamorada, in the Upper Keys, suffered a shattering blow to its economy when Irma’s Atlantic surge destroyed every major hotel and resort in the four-island municipality.
A year later, officials are looking back at some of the things that went right and other things that need to be improved or revamped when preparing for the next hurricane and the recovery thereafter.
“As an individual resident, have a plan,” said Seth Lawless, manager of the Village of Islamorada. “As the village, have the resources necessary for recovery.”
Lawless said the Upper Keys village was prepared, but at a high cost. As it finalizes a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the five-member village council had to raise property taxes because the majority of reserve funds were used up in cleaning up after Irma.
“We are feeling the effects to the budget going into the new fiscal year that starts Oct. 1,” Lawless said.
Martin Senterfitt, director of Monroe County Emergency Management, said one of the major problems in the storm’s aftermath was the inability to communicate with people who evacuated ahead of Irma, which hit the Keys the morning of Sept. 10, 2017. That hampered getting people back into the Keys, delaying recovery efforts.
The inability of people to return to their homes also sowed confusion and anger among those wanting to evaluate the damage to their property.
“There needs to be better communication between people within the county and those outside who want to come back in,” he said.
Monroe Sheriff Rick Ramsay agreed, noting sheriff’s deputies manning checkpoints in Florida City were on the receiving end of people’s anguish.
“We took the brunt of the force of the people who were angry up there,” Ramsay said.
To ease the process next time around, Senterfitt implemented a program in which Keys residents can take a 32-hour course in disaster recovery and become members of what’s been dubbed the Monroe County Emergency Reserve Corps. Those who complete the course would be allowed to return before the rest of the general public to help with initial recovery efforts.
Graduates of the program will be given placards to be placed on their vehicles’ dashboards indicating to police at the Florida City checkpoint they’re allowed in.
Senterfitt said the program has been well-received since the county announced it in May.
“We have had several hundred people take volunteer leadership team training,” he said, noting people who graduate can train other volunteers to become certified.
Ramsay, the sheriff, is cautious about the program.
“We’ll see how that works out,” he said.
Regardless, Islamorada Village Councilman Mike Forster said it’s important that residents evacuate when the mandatory order is given, like it was before Irma, despite the issues encountered last September. He stressed the point because many Keys residents vowed never to evacuate again after being kept from their homes for a week after the storm
“Be out of harm’s way. Give the first responders total access without being impeded by those that will be slowing down the recovery to those who most need it,” Forster said. “I really is a matter of life and death. These first responders are so important and trained for catastrophe and don’t have time to work around those that really would be in the way.”
Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said communication with those outside the Keys was a significant issue in the days following the storm. He said county information technology staff is hardening the phone and internet systems for employees and the county revamped its website for residents looking for information.
“That will help the right information getting out and the tamping down of rumors,” Gastesi said.
Gastesi said he was most surprised by residents’ lack of preparation before the storm — no gasoline in their vehicles, no evacuation plans, no stored water — and subsequent unrealistic expectations after Irma passed.
“Complaints about no power, water, sewer, cable, debris cleanup, et cetera,” he said.
Ramsay said he’s angry about how ill-equipped the county’s government buildings were before the storm and remain so one year later. Ramsay evacuated inmates from the jail on Stock Island ahead of the storm because he knew the building would not be liveable if it lost power.
“I didn’t have confidence in that building,” Ramsay said of the College Road facility.
He made the right decision, it turns out, not only for the health and safety of the inmates, but also for jail staff. When the electricity went down, so did the mechanism to lock and unlock cells, and there was no non-potable water to flush toilets.
“We lost the generator right away,” Ramsay said. “We lost 10 days of water and all the food supply in the jail. Any and all infrastructure failed in that building.”
The sheriff’s office headquarters, also on College Road, incurred so much water damage that deputies and administrative staff are still working in trailers in the parking lot a year later.
“We’re in the middle of another hurricane season, and we’re working in trailers sitting in a flood zone,” he said.
Ramsay said the debris-removal process was badly handled after the storm and hindered the ability of his deputies, first responders and utility crews to travel side roads and within subdivisions.
“I’m opposed to people being able to just put garbage and trash everywhere,” he said. “It made the county look terrible.”
Lack of communication was at the root of that problem too, according to Ramsay. People did not know where they could put the massive amount of debris left in their yards in Irma’s wake. And, some people used the storm as an excuse to get rid of things taking up space in their home and property that were unrelated to the storm.
“I said early on, and no one listened, that people can’t dump cars, boats and travel trailers on the side of the road because FEMA won’t pick them up,” he said. “How can I come after them for illegal dumping when no one told them they can’t leave it there? There was no message about what people could or couldn’t do, where people could or couldn’t put it.”
“We were working against ourselves, I think, sometimes,” Ramsay said. “The county has to do better.”
Meanwhile, forecasters were watching several low-pressure systems over the weekend peel off Africa and make their way across the Atlantic. Even if none turn into tropical cyclones headed for South Florida, Senterfitt reminded residents they have to wait until the rest of September and all of October to exhale. Though hurricane season starts in June, the fall is when the Keys is typically impacted.
“We’re just now getting into our hurricane season,” he said, noting that October hurricanes tend to pop up in the Caribbean and take less time to form, thus leaving less time to prepare.
“With storms coming off Africa, you have 10, 12 days to prepare,” Senterfitt said. “With the Caribbean, you have two, three days notice. It’s hurricane season, and it can happen.”
Islamorada Councilwoman Deb Gillis, who is also the owner of three hotels that suffered damage from the storm, said the most important lesson she learned from Irma is how tragedy and chaos brings out the best in people.
“In some of the worst times you will make some of the best friends. You will find friends you did not know you had and discover that kindness over the years comes back triple in times of need,” Gillis said..
“Short example. I have a guest that has been coming to the motel for many years in February and stays most of the month. After the storm in September, he called me to check to see how we were. In the course of the conversation, he offered to pay for his upcoming February stay in September so that I could have working capital. Her wanted to help and be a friend,” said Gillis.
“I also had another guest call that has construction crews he wanted to send,” she said. “He knew we would be shorthanded and wanted to donate tome and energy helping our needs.”