A huge airborne relief mission is en route to the Keys to help people impacted by the devastation caused when the eye of Hurricane Irma blasted through the Lower Florida Keys at daybreak Sunday morning.
Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt called the destruction caused by Irma, a massive Category 4 storm when it impacted the Keys, a “humanitarian crisis.”
Among the services coming to the Keys are “disaster mortuary teams,” he said during a conference call.
United States Air Force special operations pilots are testing flights with C-130 cargo planes around the massive storm from Mississippi to the Keys in anticipation of the mission, which will include Air National Guard flights of more C-130s and helicopters following the fixed-wing flights.
“The help is on its way,” Senterfitt said during a conference call Sunday afternoon.
“We’re going to get more aid than we’ve ever seen in our lives,” Senterfitt said.
Supplies and personnel could be coming in by air to Monroe County by early Monday morning, Senterfitt said.
The first arrival will be at Florida Keys Marathon Airport, which can handle about two C-130 planes at a time. The plan, said Senterfitt, is to have two C-130s land every two hours on the airfield there.
The official numbers have not come in yet, but damage is reportedly massive throughout the Keys. The eye of the hurricane passed over Cudjoe Key in the Lower Keys around daybreak Sunday, and caused heavy destruction from a combination of wind, rain and surge.
The Middle and Upper Keys were also severely heavily damaged and flooded. On Grouper Lane in Key Largo, readers sent in photos of vehicles almost entirely under water.
The storm knocked out power Keys-wide and caused damage to some of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority’s transmission lines, impacting the flow of fresh water to the island chain.
Joshua Riehl rode out Hurricane Irma in his parents’ house in the middle of the neighborhood on Snapper Lane in Key Largo. Power went out around 10 a.m., but otherwise, things could have been worse, he said.
Although the storm surge caused flooding much higher than 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, the last tropical storm to significantly impact the Keys, it was still about three feet from the front of the door of his parents’ home.
But he feared the situation was much different at his house, still on Snapper Lane, but right on the ocean.
“The house where I live is probably all the way underwater,” said Riehl, 23, who was born and raised in Key Largo. “The water didn’t get nearly this high during Wilma. It was about half as deep.”
Steve Jahn rode out the storm in Plantation Key Colony, off the bay side of mile marker 90 in Plantation Key. After surviving Hurricane Wilma, he knew one of the best ways to prepare was to get everything as high off the ground as possible. But that takes a while.
“I stayed until it was too late,” Jahn sad.
Jahn patrolled the area in large part because he enjoys “observing the weather.”
“I’m a fan,” he said.
Jahn reported that U.S. 1 was drivable as of 1 p.m. down to Windley Key around mile marker 85.
However, driving over the Snake Creek Bridge during a 100 mph gust is not for the faint hearted.
“You feel like you’re going to fly off the bridge,” Jahn said.
That said, reports that the bridge was damaged are not true. Senterfitt called the report simply a “rumor,” and a photo of the bridge that could have been construed as showing damage “doctored” or an “optical illusion.”
While there will be plenty of people in need of help who stayed in the Keys despite repeated pleas from officials to get out, others left the storm’s destructive path and are glad they did.
Stacy Perkins and her boyfriend John Wolf evacuated their Tavernier home Friday upon the advice of Wolf, who has lived in the Keys for 20 years.
“I’ve never been through (a) hurricane before and John has been here for 20 years,” Perkins said. “He felt like the time was right to get out, and I wasn’t going to argue with him.”