State, feds and locals must help rescue the Florida Keys

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Storm surge from Hurricane Irma lifted a boat onto the Overseas Highway on Summerland Key.
Storm surge from Hurricane Irma lifted a boat onto the Overseas Highway on Summerland Key. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

With one road in and one road out, it’s taking some time to discover the full extent of damage in the Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma stormed onto land there. Once police, emergency personnel — and the Miami Herald — were able to survey the situation, the only word that seemed fitting, for the Lower Keys especially, was “devastation” — Gov. Scott’s description.

The Keys are a fragile strand of islands — with an equally fragile environment, exposed to the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay — and least able to withstand an intense hurricane.

But the people who call the Keys home more than make up for that fragility with a staunch sense of community that breaks down the silos of the Upper, Middle, and Lower Keys and Key West. Their mantra? “One human family.”

They clearly stand ready to help each other, and the Keys, recover. However they will need unrelenting support from Monroe County’s Emergency Operations Center in the short term, and from elected officials up and down the chain of islands.

Plus federal aid. President Trump is expected in Florida on Thursday and will see the needs for himself.

In addition, it is the responsibility of the business, lodging chambers and civic leaders to coalesce around a recovery initiative. Tourism is the Keys bread and butter. According to the Monroe County Tourism Development Council, the tourism industry employs 54 percent of the Keys workforce. The estimated value of Monroe County’s tourism is $2.7 billion and 60 percent of spending in the county is attributed to tourism. After Hurricane Andrew raked South Miami-Dade County in 1992, We Will Rebuild set the standard — a high one — for the way to get it done. It’s worth emulating in the Keys.

Most important, the people of Lower Keys, Ground Zero for Hurricane Irma’s arrival in Florida, will have to be strong advocates for their own cause. Yes, they have a representative on the Monroe County Commission. However, unlike other parts of the Keys — Key West or Marathon, for instance — the Lower Keys does not have an additional municipal commission to add strength to its voice.

Already, the hard work is being done. On Tuesday, tired and anxious residents and business owners were allowed to return to Key Largo, Tavernier, and Islamorada. These areas, of course, received the least storm damage and were easier to access. However, that’s where the push to help the Lower Keys sensibly has to start. Given the level of debris that the storm left even there, to the north, it was a solid accomplishment.

The hardest hit islands of the Lower Keys, including Cudjoe Key, have a long turnaround. Brock Long, who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency — FEMA — estimated that 25 percent of the homes throughout the Keys were destroyed. However, Monroe has not determined the percentage of damage yet. Monroe County has begun to open shelters for returning residents. However, there needs to be a long-term strategy for housing residents, either in salvageable homes or elsewhere.

This is a task made even harder by the lack of affordable housing that already existed in the Keys.

No doubt, many Keys residents will look to Miami-Dade County, where, when it comes to affordability, the pickings are slim, too.

In a White House video distributed before Hurricane Irma hit Florida, the president promised, among other things, that his administration will be a partner in Florida’s efforts to “restore, recover, and rebuild.” The Keys are among other regions in the state that need this to be a promise kept.