Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the Florida Keys on Tuesday to meet with local leaders and to pledge state support for the island chain as it continues to recover from Hurricane Irma almost two years after the Category 4 storm struck.
“We want to make sure you’re back and stronger than ever,” DeSantis said during a news conference at the Coast Guard Station Marathon after holding a half-hour-long roundtable discussion with various Keys elected officials and county and city government officials. “Let’s hope we get a little bit of a break this hurricane season.”
DeSantis did not go into detail on how the state plans to help the Keys, but he mentioned more money is on its way to clean up the Keys canal system, which is still littered with debris that Irma left behind.
The Keys received federal money to remove debris from 172 of the county’s 500 canals but sediment removal is still needed from additional canals, county officials say.
“There were no detailed plans there,” said Monroe County Commissioner David Rice after the event. “The devil is always in the details and they will come later and then we’ll know what we’ve been offered. When he says clean up the canals, it sounded to me he was talking about money coming to Monroe County for that.”
The Republican governor also touched on the $90 million in federal Housing and Urban Development money that was approved for the Keys specifically through a state-run program called Rebuild Florida. Residents with low or medium incomes whose homes were badly damaged during Irma can apply for housing repair money through the program.
“We know we think it’s coming,” Rice said, of the HUD money. “They have not yet put the rules together that will cover the distribution of those dollars. Until you have those rules, there’s ambiguity there and it can be misinterpreted.”
As of April, more than 1,250 households have registered for Rebuild Florida funds, and 533 have “been prioritized and provided applications,” according to Monroe County’s website.
This was DeSantis’ first official visit to the Keys as governor. He won the 2018 election in Monroe County with more than 51 percent of the vote over Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
DeSantis, who brought several state department heads with him to Marathon including Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein and Ken Lawson, who runs the Department of Economic Opportunity, said his administration hasn’t forgotten about the recent deadly hurricanes that roared through South Florida.
“It was a very big storm,” DeSantis said of Irma. “I think some people in Florida kind of forgot about it because by the time it got to Central Florida it had lost its steam, but the Keys were ground zero. It did an awful lot of damage.
“I was mindful upon taking office that not only were we still recovering from Hurricane Michael, which a lot of people had forgotten about, but even the year before with Hurricane Irma,” he said. “I directed my folks, ‘Look, if there’s money in the pipeline for assistance of some sort, let’s not let that get mired in red tape.”