David Trombly rides a barge filled to the limit.

It started on Facebook. After the devastation left by Hurricane Irma, one heartfelt and selfless request to the Evacuees of the Keys page amassed an army of volunteers. In December, founder of the Conch Republic Marine Army (CRMA), Brian Vest, of Big Pine Key reached out with an offer to help organize the cleanup of canals in the Big Pine community. His vision was of a community of volunteers, navigating by water and land, to remove debris left by Irma in the canals. The need was urgent, as all manner of sea life was put directly in the crosshairs of dangerous and ever shifting flotsam filling the canals.

Vest said: “We do not back down, nor do we quit. When we see neighbors who need assistance, we help. Unconditionally. And so an army was created. An army of people, both from within the Republic and outside our borders, who have come together to restore what Irma took away, and to make everyone’s lives a little better.”

It started easily enough, with dozens of kayaks and some 50 volunteers, marching into neighborhoods and getting knee deep in muck in order to remove all manner of hazardous debris. The local operator and owner of Keys Kayak Tours on Big Pine Key lent the volunteers all the kayaks that survived. Bill Keogh even bought new paddles, as all his had been lost to Irma. Keogh looked past his own devastating losses, and became a part of the Army immediately, when he saw the need for something.

The Army’s third cleanup was dedicated to Keogh. Volunteers descended on his kayak business to rebuild what they could, and get him back on his feet.

CRMA has taken on multiple canals throughout the Middle and Lower Keys, and has grown in numbers from a handful to hundreds, including co-founder Rick Higgins. The CRMA got help from some of the most unusual places. First on board was the Jose Wejebe Spanish Fly Memorial Foundation and Costa sunglasses. The backing enabled the Army to tackle three separate neighborhoods with well over 150 volunteers. About 25,500 pounds of debris were removed on that second outing — impressive for an organization with no government funding. The Summit and Core churches in Homestead have also embraced Vest’s vision, sending volunteers to just about every event and doubling the impact of the CRMA. It also coordinates with the Monroe County Public Works Department that sees that the debris is hauled away.

Crews go out most weekends, giving up their free time to save the Keys’ coast and waterways. Some of the work happens on land. The group recently visited Bahia Honda State Park, planting more than a hundred native plants to help restore a natural buffer between the campers and the ocean. This was done with the backing and help of the Friends of Bahia Honda State Park. The crews brought more than just their love for the landmark park; they also brought breakfast and water for all the volunteers.

Even the Army’s mission statement is far-reaching. Niurka Espinola worked very hard with her team to come up with this statement: “Habitat restoration, and to clean up and protect the coasts, mangroves, and waterways of the Florida Keys.”

There is power in an army of volunteers.

Here’s a look at some of the cleanups conducted
by the Conch Republic Marine Army:

#001 Tropical Bay Estates, 50 people, 350 hours, 7,000 lbs
#002 North Big Pine, 170 people, 1020 hours, 20,000 lbs
#003 The Avenues, 150 people, 900 hours, 73,920 lbs
#004 Tropical Bay Estates, 8 people, 32 hours, 5,000 lbs
#005 Tropical Bay Estates, 14 people,112 hours, 5,220 lbs
#006 Coupon Bight, 40 people, 240 hours, 16,500 lbs
#007 Coupon Bight, 25 people, 150 hours, 8,500 lbs
#008 No Name Key, 96 people, 576 hours, 20,960 lbs

That is a Total of 78.6 TONS!

The next meeting of the CRMA is set for Saturday, June 30 at 9 a.m. at Kiki’s Sandbar and Grille on Little Torch Key. To become a member, visit conchrepublicarmy.com and sign up.

By Kristi Cereska

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