Recovering and building back stronger than before: Those were the goals emphasized by Gov. Ron DeSantis in a Friday afternoon visit to Key Largo, where he announced a long-term, multi-million dollar resiliency investment in the Florida Keys. 

Flanked by state and Monroe County officials, the governor said $16.7 million would be making its way to the island chain to address flooding and enhance stormwater systems, among other projects. It’s part of $100 million in Rebuild Florida funds being doled out by the state to 24 communities impacted by storms.

Of the funds allotted locally, $1.3 million will assist homeowners in Key Largo vulnerable to storm surge. A total of $5 million will help Key West improve its stormwater and wastewater systems. Monroe County will get just over $10.4 million for sea level rise and flood prevention projects.

It’s unknown at this time what specific projects will receive the state funding, and what amount they’d get. 

The funding for the Keys comes from the state Department of Economic Opportunity’s Rebuild Florida program, which aims to make investments in areas like the Keys and the Panhandle hit hard by hurricanes Irma and Michael.  

“Controlling water has been a challenge that Florida has faced throughout the entire history of the state, and it’s one we’ll continue to face. But it’s one we’re going to deal with head on,” DeSantis said on Friday. “We feel excited to be able to do it, and we’re excited to help out the good folks of Monroe County. The folks here are resilient. They understand, unfortunately, storms are part of life. When it happens we want to be there to be able to offer our support.”

County officials are facing a $1.8 billion price tag to address the Keys’ anticipated sea level rise in 25 years, and are wondering how to foot the bill. They’re also tackling flooding issues witnessed during the late stages of the year in communities including Twin Lakes Subdivision and Stillwright Point in Key Largo. While barriers installed in both communities last year aimed to provide a short-term solution, residents and county officials seek a long-term fix — and it’s going to take millions of dollars in funding. 

Former state House member Dane Eagle took over as executive director of DEO in September following the departure of Ken Lawson. Brought in to deal with an unemployment surge from COVID, he was also instructed by DeSantis to hand out the Rebuild Florida funds quickly to communities in need. Funds were given to the state in 2019 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Eagle said they have six years to expend the funds. 

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“(The governor’s) challenge to me was to get money into communities as fast as possible,” he said. “These are taxpayer dollars. It does no good sitting in government coffers. Get them back into communities where they are going to assist residents.”

Eagle said he’ll be working closely with local leaders to ensure funds are administered quickly and effectively. Monroe County Mayor Michelle Coldiron said the money will help the entire county by deleting part of the debt incurred in raising roads throughout the county. 

“We’ve had workshops where we really tried to brainstorm how we’re going to achieve the $1.8 billion that it’s going to take for us to fix our infrastructure. Every million that we receive helps,” she said.

Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, a frequent visitor to the Keys with a home in Islamorada’s Executive Bay, said the investment shows the governor’s continued commitment to addressing issues critical to the Keys.

“Resiliency, sea level rise, water quality and all those things that have been a priority of this administration since Day 1. We’re pleased to be here, we’re pleased to announce it and we look forward to continuing to work on behalf of Monroe County,” Nunez said.

County Commissioner Mike Forster, who represents Key Largo, said the funding announcement was a great surprise. 

“The fact that there’s only $100 million and we’re getting 16% of those dollars for a small community of ours with 75,000 constituents, that just shows the governor has faith in us as far as projects ready to go for resiliency and sea level rise,” Forster said. “We’ve shown with sewers we can do it. We’ve shown best management practices and we definitely take care of their money.”

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