Florida Keys

4 percent of Keys population has left since Irma. Businesses can’t find enough workers

Hurricane Irma, which hit the Lower Florida Keys as a powerful Category 4 tropical cyclone, destroyed many smaller homes, trailers and downstairs enclosures where many people in the workforce lived.
Hurricane Irma, which hit the Lower Florida Keys as a powerful Category 4 tropical cyclone, destroyed many smaller homes, trailers and downstairs enclosures where many people in the workforce lived. Upper Keys Reporter

Islamorada resorts, restaurants and retailers that have rebuilt since Hurricane Irma struck a year ago say they can’t find enough workers to fill their jobs.

A new report by the University of Florida suggests one reason why: People left the Florida Keys after the hurricane and never came back.

The Islamorada Chamber of Commerce is holding a job fair in Miami-Dade County later this month to attract workers for resorts that were taken out of last winter’s tourist season by Hurricane Irma, but are either fully back in operation or partially in business.

Chamber president Judy Hull said the four-island Village of Islamorada simply doesn’t have enough locals to fill the positions that will soon be needed. Businesses are about tapped out of the workforce from Homestead willing to hop on a bus for the 40-plus mile one-way commute every day.

The job fair is planned for Pinecrest, about 22 miles north of Florida City and Homestead. Hull hopes big businesses like Publix and the major resorts like Cheeca Lodge and Spa will charter a bus for the workers. She is proposing the bus have WiFi so people can take online classes from Florida Keys Community College during the ride to and from work.

“We need more people,” Hull said. “The people are just not here.”

The necessity for such an idea seems greater in light of new population numbers released by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research this week that show almost 3,000 residents left the Keys after Irma struck last September and haven’t come back.

The Keys lost about 4 percent of its population, which was around 77,000 people before the Category 4 storm hit, and now hovers slightly below 74,000. Hull said this is largely due to the destruction of the housing the Keys workforce lived in before the storm, which included mobile homes and downstairs enclosures.

“We had mobile homes that washed away. They can’t come back,” Hull said. “We had people living in downstairs enclosures that washed away. They can’t come back. When we lost the housing, we lost the employees.”

Fewer people are living in Monroe County now than were living in the Keys in 1990, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers.

In 1990, the Census recorded the Keys population at 78,624. It rose to 79,589 by 2000, but the 2010 Census numbers reflected the impact of 2005’s busy hurricane season, where the Keys, although not directly hit, was badly damaged by hurricanes Rita and Wilma.

Many people had enough after the latter storm and moved away from the island chain. Five years later, Census figures showed the Keys were down to 73,090 residents.

Out of the Keys’ incorporated municipalities, Marathon lost the most population after Irma — 6.2 percent, or 540 people. Islamorada was close behind with a 5.3-percent decline in residents, according to the Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Key West, which suffered significantly less damage from Irma than either Islamorada or the keys in between the Southernmost City and Marathon, lost less than 1 percent of its total population of 24,597 people, according to the numbers.

Unincorporated Monroe County, which includes Key Largo in the Upper Keys and hard-hit Lower Keys like Big Pine, Summerland, Little Torch and Cudjoe, went from 36,202 residents before Irma to 34,266 people, according to University of Florida researchers.

IF YOU GO

Job fair: Islamorada Chamber of Commerce job fair at the Pinecrest Cypress Gardens Room, 1100 Red Rd., from noon to 4 p.m. Sept. 24. Call 305-664-4503 for information.

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