Canal cleanups have started on Avenues D and E on Big Pine Key. KRISTEN LIVENGOOD/Keys Weekly

By the time Monroe County canals are cleared of storm debris, it will have been more than a year and a half since Hurricane Irma’s roar on the shore. 

Contractors have 222 days to bring it all back to the surface, and the clock started ticking Aug 17.  

Entire households, and everything that was inside them, have had nearly a year to settle on canal floors, with the Key by the Sea canal being one of the worst countywide. It’ll take through March 2019 before the waterlogged debris is gone. 

“We are operating six different sites simultaneously,” said Chris Colarusso, president of Adventure Environmental Inc., lead contractor on the multi-million dollar cleanup project with Monroe County. 

In the Upper Keys, work has started on Iroquois Drive on Lower Matecumbe. Other sites are on Avenues D and E on Big Pine Key; Summerland Key and Geiger Key. In Marathon, a kickoff event was held with local officials last week.  

“This canal here could take up to one month,” Colarusso said about the canal at Key by the Sea in Marathon. “It is the worst of them all.”

Colarusso said each morning, divers check the canal water for wildlife, like manatees. 

“We locate the manatees, then basically swim them out of the canal, shush them out. Then, once all the manatees swim out we have a manatee observer waiting to make sure they don’t come back in,” Colarusso said. 

Six crews on 15 barges throughout the Keys will continue cleaning for the next seven months. Adventure was the No. 1 ranked vendor, and cleaned Keys canals after Hurricane Georges and Hurricane Mitch in 1998. It also did much of the damaged-vessel removal work in the Keys after Hurricane Irma. 

The county is using a grant of $49.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its Emergency Watershed Protection Program. 

It’s divided into $35.2 million for unincorporated Monroe, $7.5 million for Marathon and $6.5 million for Islamorada. Work will finally begin in August. 

The grant requires the work be done in 222 days. Debris will be moved, some of it trucked and some by barge, to different staging areas, and trucked to a landfill. 

Failed cleanup efforts by state-hired DRC Environmental Services, which pulled out in mid-May after it said it underbid the project, have resumed under Adventure with help from subcontractors including ASAP Marine Contractors of Tavernier, Arnolds Towing and Salvage of Stock Island and Tetra Tech Inc., a non-local commercial diving company. 

“We have multiple layers of debris to clear. Every morning we have divers in the canals to determine what’s in there. In the end, everything will come out,” Colarusso said. 

This week Adventure Environmental crews started clearing the Lower Matacumbe canals of Sunset and Iroquois Drives and are removing everything from dock boxes and garbage cans to entire docks and metal roofing, or metal chairs, like this one being pulled up by Anthony Colarusso and Tyler Brown.
JASON KOLER/Keys Weekly

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