All Monroe County residents will be able to return to the Keys Sunday, including those who live in severely hard-hit areas of the Lower Keys between Key West and Marathon.
Residents of the Middle Keys will be allowed to return Saturday morning, said Roman Gastesi, county administrator, during a Saturday morning conference call with officials from local, state and federal agencies. Residents below the Seven Mile Bridge will be able to return at daybreak Sunday morning.
Only residents with their county-issued stickers will be allowed to return and those involved in the recovery effort. The Keys are not open to tourists. The checkpoint is in Florida City.
Sheriff Rick Ramsay said it’s important to allow people to return home to assess the damage and “secure their homes and tarp their roofs.”
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“This is going to be a trying few days,” Ramsay said.
On Saturday morning, traffic getting into the Keys was already backed up to Homestead as you exited the Florida Turnpike.
By noon, the Upper Keys were messy but coming to life. Spray-painted pieces of plywood advertise open rooms, generators and gas. One read, “Can't drown a conch.”
Officials warn living conditions will be primitive for at least the next few weeks or more. So, if you return, bring enough supplies, including food and fresh water, to last for a very long time.
There is a heavy law enforcement presence in the Keys, as well as 2,000 U.S. Army National Guard soldiers in the island chain. Ramsay said he will “saturate” areas like Big Pine, Cudjoe, Little Torch and Ramrod Keys to prevent looting. Those areas were extremely hard hit by high winds and deep storm surge when Hurricane Irma’s eye passed over as a Category 4 hurricane at daybreak last Sunday morning.
“The damage in those areas is just beyond belief,” said Monroe County Mayor George Neugent. “It’s just mind-boggling.”
Water and power remain a big problem in much of the Keys, and the entire area is under a boil-water order.
The cities of Marathon and Key West already planned on allowing their residents to return. Marathon City Manager Chuck Lindsey, however, said he wanted re-entry contingent on the Red Cross being able to build a shelter capable of holding “a couple of hundred people.”
Marathon was also badly hit by the storm. Marathon High School was one of four shelters of last resort in Monroe County. The shelter was not run by the Red Cross; the gym was open for people to escape the storm.
Upper Keys residents who live from Key Largo south to Lower Matecumbe Key had been allowed to return since Tuesday.
Monroe County School District Superintendent Mark Porter says his goal is to open schools on Monday, Sept. 25. But for that to happen, the county will have to find other places to shelter people displaced by the storm.
“I can’t have school with shelters inside our buildings,” Porter said.
Mariners Hospital in Tavernier is open. Fishermen’s Community Hospital in Marathon is in the process of building a temporary facility. Key West’s Lower Keys Medical Center’s emergency room is fully functioning and the hospital may be able to accept in-patients some time next week.
“This is one of the toughest decisions to make, but also an indicator of how well our recovery has been going since the Keys suffered a direct hit by Category 4 Hurricane Irma,” Gastesi said in a statement released Saturday morning. “We know there will be many challenges ahead, especially for our hardest hit areas in the Lower Keys. But we want our residents and business owners to come back to rebuild their lives, their livelihoods and our economy. We are prepared to restore the Keys back to the special paradise we love.”