On Gov. Ron DeSantis’ first official visit to the Keys on April 16, local officials had the opportunity to share their concerns with him in Marathon — hurricane recovery, water quality and Everglades restoration topped the list.
He also announced a new plan to clean every canal in the Florida Keys over the next 10 years. According to Rhonda Haag, Monroe County’s director of sustainability, there are 500 canals in the Keys; 172 have received recent attention after Hurricane Irma.
“That’s huge,” said Islamorada Village Manager Seth Lawless.
DeSantis did not elaborate on how much the plan would cost, but said the Department of Economic Opportunity would draft the plan.
“He saw how flawlessly we cleaned up after the hurricane — under budget and ahead of schedule,” said Monroe County Commissioner David Rice. “He knows this will be money well spent to protect the environment.”
Besides Keys dignitaries, also in attendance were Lt. Gov. Jeannette Nunez, who has Keys roots with a home in Islamorada, Director of Emergency Management Jared Moskowitz, Director of Economic Opportunity Ken Lawson, and Secretary of Environmental Protection Noah Valenstein.
Moskowitz told the small crowd assembled at the Coast Guard base in Marathon that his staff will continue to expedite Irma reimbursement to Keys governments.
“It’s no secret that the money isn’t flowing fast enough back to the cities, the county, and even the utilities,” he said. “But we’ve changed the policy from auditing the FEMA reimbursement worksheets 100 percent before sending the dollars, to a 50 percent standard.” Moskowitz said the department has cut recovery checks totaling $125 million in the last 100 days, $3.8 million of which was sent to the Keys.
Moskowitz also said he supports putting state funds into a new Emergency Operations Center in Marathon. He emphasized its uses beyond a hurricane command center. “We are at the southernmost tip of the U.S. It might also be used for potential issues with geopolitical situations, not just hurricanes.”
Lawson, head of DEO, also made some brief remarks about the federal funding in Community Block Development Grants that passes through the state’s Rebuild Florida program. In the first phase, homeowners will be aided by the state, which will award recovery funds and hire the contractors itself. The deadline to apply was March 29. As of five weeks ago, 1,128 Keys households had applied and 477 applications had been vetted.
“I have $90 million in my back pocket,” Lawson said.
Environmental Protection’s Valenstein said two things are crystal clear.
“The people in the Keys have a passion for the environment, and understand how the environment interacts with our economy,” Valenstein said. “And they overcome adversity by working together.”
The governor and his staff re-stated the goals of spending $625 million on water quality improvements and Everglades restoration. DeSantis praised both the House and Senate budgets that grant the full amount, actually a tad more in the Senate budget.
“I promised our voters swift action, but I think people are used to the same platitudes made by politicians. But I came here to lead. And I think it’s clear to the legislature that people support these projects,” DeSantis said. “We might even be able to bring in another $70 million from the federal government to fix the issues with Tamiami Trail. We can’t keep the water stopped up. It needs to come down here, to Florida Bay.”