September 12, 2017

As Upper Florida Keys residents returned and emergency crews cleared debris from streets, looking for survivors and searching for the dead following Hurricane Irma’s wrath in the Florida Keys, those who evacuated from the Lower Keys are still waiting to re-enter and assess damage to their homes.

Upper Keys residents had to pass through a checkpoint upon entering the Keys. There were two lines, those with re-entry stickers and those without, as those with stickers did not have to show identification and were quickly whisked through.

Military convoys headed south of U.S. 1 as part of the massive relief and clean-up effort. U.S. 1 was cleared of debris, but mounds of seagrass, boats and debris lined the side of the Keys main drag. Two areas that were washed out are being repaired at this time.

At the Post Card Inn marina on Tuesday, Capt. Jeff Pursley surveyed his sunken boat, the Island Time. The boat was the only one left behind before the hurricane made landfall in the Keys. Pursley does have insurance on the boat. “We are all in for a long haul,” said Pursley, who has captained the boat for six years.

The Winn-Dixie grocery store in Islamorada was open on Tuesday, as well as the Mobile gas station at mile marker 92 and the Marlin gas station at mile marker 88. Both had gas and small lines of motorists waiting to fuel up.

Relief efforts made their way to Key West on Tuesday, with Federal Emergency Management Agency staging areas set up in Bahama Village and in Sears Town shopping center. FEMA was supposed to be giving away food and other supplies there Tuesday afternoon. “These have been the first signs of relief,” Key West Citizen reporter Scott Unger said. Military airplanes and helicopters have regularly buzzed the island in the past two days, Unger said.

Off Key West, there are food and water distribution sites set up at Sugarloaf School, Marathon High School and the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge Center on Big Pine Key.

The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) has been turning on the desalination plant on Stock Island and providing water to Key West through Key Haven from 10 a.m. to noon daily. The agency plans to continue to do so, FKAA spokeswoman Julie Cheon said Tuesday. The water should be boiled if it is to be consumed.

Of the estimated 300 people who took refuge at Key West High School, most had gone home as of Tuesday, Unger said.

Most of the damage in Key West appeared to be roofs ripped off homes and businesses or severely damaged from tree limbs and other debris. West Martello sustained significant damage in the storm, with the large signature banyan tree felled.

All roads in New Town appeared to be cleared, but trees block many roads in Old Town, Unger said, and power poles with downed electrical wires could be found on nearly every street in the city. There was one sunken sailboat in pieces on Simonton Beach in Old Town and another half sunken yacht in Key West Bight.

There is water pressure in the Upper Keys from the 18 Mile Stretch to mile marker 86 and crews are beginning work in other areas of the Keys to restore water, Cheon said.
“We are building pressure in Marathon slowly,” Cheon said.

Crews with Gianetti construction, an FKKA constractor, were mobilizing crews Tuesday and will start work restoring water on Big Pine Key through Cudjoe Key on Wednesday.

Below mile marker 77, remained still off limits Tuesday to incoming residents who did not stay behind. Those with homes near the epicenter in Cudjoe Key that left are still waiting to return to assess the damage to their homes.

Cudjoe Key residents Damien Varella, his wife Virginia Smith, their two small children and members of their extended family remained hold up with relatives in south Georgia. The family, whose home was at the epicenter of the storm’s landfall, has scoured the internet and social media for photographs of their home to determine to extent of the damage to their single story home. They know there is damage, but how much is yet to be determined.

They could not make out their home on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite images and other aerial photos, said Varella, who along with his wife were born and raised in the Keys.

Varella was one of the last of his family to leave Friday night just before the storm reached the Keys. He evacuated with two dogs and seven chickens. “It’s been kind of crazy not knowing anything,” Varella said. “I have seen videos posted of Cudjoe, but not my area. … No sense rushing back until I get more information.”

Officials with Monroe County refused to address allegations made by Key West City Councilman Sam Kaufman on his Facebook page that there were “fatalities” that would be announced today.
Unger said the city confirmed one man died during the storm, but would not release any additional information, and no one from the Sheriff’s Office is answering calls or emails at this time.