Canal cleanup from 2017’s Hurricane Irma continues in the Florida Keys, as county leaders grapple with finding the money to clear more canals than the 172 covered by a $49 million federal grant.
Republican U. S. Sen. Marco Rubio on Friday visited Marathon, one of the hardest-hit spots along the island chain, to check on the progress of the canal cleaning. He said he would help Keys officials obtain the approval they need to clean an additional 145 canals that aren’t on the current project list.
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But Rubio took time to congratulate locals on getting the job more than 80 percent complete, under budget and ahead of schedule. So far, $15.6 million of the $45.8 million budgeted by the Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service has been used for debris removal. About $3 million of the total $49 million is reserved for environmental monitoring.
Friday marked Rubio’s third trip to the same Marathon Canal, located in a trailer park at 6099 Overseas Hwy., since Irma struck.
The canal was one of the county’s worst spots due to Irma, once filled with sunken motorhomes and household appliances. Rubio was there when it looked like a mini disaster in April 2018.
“We went back to D.C. and we fought to get the money to get this cleaned up,” Rubio said. “It’s a good example of how local, state and federal government officials working together can make something positive happen.”
Monroe County has enough federal dollars to clear more canals, having received a $49 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service. The money was designated to clear 172 canals of debris but the county was denied approval to use the grant to clear 145 more.
“It’s supposed to be for debris removal but not for sediment removal,” Rubio said. “And that’s an interpretation that they have. That’s not the way it was interpreted in that past. We need to go back through the appeals process and figure out why was the application was denied so the reapplication can be submitted or the existing application can be approved. The money’s there.”
County leaders have hope the 145 canals will win approval from the federal agency.
“With the help of Sen. Rubio we’ll have a much better chance getting a little bit of an attitude change with the people who work on us for approvals,” said County Commissioner David Rice. “The money is there, but the money doesn’t do it without the go-ahead. We need the go-ahead.”
There are some 500 canals in the Florida Keys. They’re like roads here, Rubio said.
“If we had roads that had trees and debris on them we would clean it up,” he said. “They were unnavigable and frankly, ran the risk of long-term damage to the ecology.”
Rubio’s Marathon visit Friday also included a trip to the local beach to help the local Turtle Hospital release a rehabilitated 170-pound loggerhead, named Lady Bradley, back into the ocean.