Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez urges water safety ahead of Memorial Day Weekend during a May 26 press conference inside Founders Park Community Center in Islamorada. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Summer in the Florida Keys unofficially began Friday as students jubilantly scurried out of the classrooms — another school year came to a close. On the road, vehicles and RVs filed into the Upper Keys from the 18-Mile Stretch for a Memorial Day Weekend that’s expected to see scores of boats packing local sandbars. 

Inside the Founders Park Community Center, Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez met with local officials to relay messages of precaution and safety on the water and around pools as part of National Water Safety Month. 

Flanked by Holly Merrill Raschein, county commissioner, and several state officials, Nuñez especially drew attention to a sobering statistic — 96 children in Florida died from drowning last year. Nuñez acknowledged that she felt compelled to hold a press conference to urge adults to remain alert and avoid distractions, like looking at phones when children are around pools and bodies of water. 

“It just takes a few seconds if you lose focus and concentration. …we’re always connected to our phones,” Nuñez said. 

She also emphasized the importance of taking swimming lessons and CPR training, as well as ensuring barriers and gates are installed around pools. Also, check local weather conditions before heading out on the water. 

“We can all work together to improve and prevent unnecessary drownings and loss of life,” Nuñez said. 

Shevaun Harris, secretary for the Florida Department of Children and Families, joined Nuñez in the press conference. Harris said parents should have safeguards in place, which include having a “water watcher” if a parent needs to take a phone call or step away from their child. A mother of two, she also urged parents to put their infants through special swim classes. 

“When my kids were little, 6 months, I put them in what’s called the infant swim resources classes. It teaches them how to protect themselves from falling in,” Harris said. “Classes like that and others offered through local YMCAs are really critical to invest in, and so many organizations offer free or reduced cost classes.”

Harris recalled a time when she almost drowned at a pool as a young girl during a vacation with her parents.

“My mom wasn’t near me and didn’t see me fall in. I still remember the look on her face, the look of terror and fear, when I came out. My hope is no parent has to experience that,” Harris said. 

Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Maj. Alberto Maza said National Water Safety Month also coincides with National Safe Boating Week. Maza said FWC’s focus remains on safe boating practices, which include driving sober and wearing life jackets. Maza said 64% of boating deaths last year were related to drowning.

“Unexpected things can happen on vessels,” Maza said. “When you’re on the water, put a life jacket on.”

Following the press conference, Nuñez briefly met with World War II veteran and Islamorada resident Dick Barnes, who recently turned 100. Barnes spent several minutes telling the lieutenant governor stories from his time in the U.S. Navy, which entailed everything from salvaging and flying “Flying Duds,” or combat-damaged aircraft, to organizing air shows during his time stationed in Niagara Falls and New Orleans. 

Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez shares a laugh while Dick Barnes, retired U.S. Navy captain who recently turned 100, shares stories. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

“We have the utmost respect for our veterans, especially those who get to the rivaled age of 100. The governor and I send you our most heartfelt congratulations,” Nuñez said. 

Nuñez is no stranger to the Florida Keys, specifically the Upper Keys. When the schedule allows, Nuñez and her family spend time in Islamorada.

Jim McCarthy is one of the many Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 4-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.