Monroe County will be holding six public workshops all around the county beginning in January (see sidebar). The purpose is to get community input about how to respond better to hurricanes – before, during and after.
“These meetings are designed to hear from you, the community,” said Monroe County Public Information Officer Cammy Clark.
On Dec. 20, Monroe County Emergency Management Director Marty Senterfitt said the Keys deserve an A+ for the response and rapid recovery from the storm.
“It’s been 57 years since we’ve had a catastrophic storm in the Keys, and there wasn’t a lot of institutional knowledge. That being said, the community did an incredible job,” he said. “But now the world has changed. We know what a Category 4 storm looks like, and we have to rise to the occasion. We have to get better.”
Senterfitt said he’s eager to hear the public’s response to Hurricane Irma preparedness and recovery.
“I want to get feedback from everyone and hear different perspectives,” he said. “However, certain themes keep reappearing.”
- Communication. A Category 4 storm wipes out cell phone service and the internet. Which makes communication challenging at best, not only within the disaster zone, but also outside it. Senterfitt said he wants to explore the use of COW (Cell On Wheel) towers, and portable satellite systems. “The satellite functions like a generator and can provide the command post with VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phone line and also internet capability,” he said. Other items to explore include “old school” technology such as stationing a requisition team out of the disaster zone to speed supply orders, or even ham radio operators.
- Self-evaluation. Having not only government agencies, but also the general public, reflect on Hurricane Irma has merit. “I have some personal insight,” said Senterfitt, ruefully. “I had way too many of my personal belongings stored underneath my house. Not only was it painful to lose my things, but I also contributed to the debris on the side of the road.” Senterfitt said many Keys residents, himself included, were caught off guard.
- Trained volunteers. Monroe County’s Emergency Management Department has five full-time employees. Five. To better respond, Monroe County has two choices, hire more employees or train the general public. (To be clear, many regular citizens were part of the immediate recovery effort — whether clearing roads or delivering supplies up and down the Keys.) Part of the training can include hands-on work. “As other areas experience disaster, we can go help them because it’s the right thing to do. But we will also be learning skills and reinforcing knowledge.” To that end, the Monroe County Emergency Management office will be holding classes beginning in February to train local volunteers in the National Incident Management System.
- Pre-positioned contracts. “We’re struggling with debris removal right now, of course. But we also need to talk about whether we need contracts for communication equipment when we need it, or a team to help us with logistics,” said Senterfitt. He praised the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative for its storm readiness, with contracts in place not only to bring in linemen, but also to set up base camps with a kitchen, cots and showers.
Public workshops on Hurricane Irma, all scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m.:
- Monday, Jan. 8: Murray Nelson Government and Cultural Center, 102050 Overseas Highway, Key Largo.
- Tuesday, Jan. 9: Founders Park Community Room, 87000 Overseas Highway (next to the pool), Islamorada.
- Wednesday, Jan. 10: Harvey Government Center, BOCC Room, 1200 Truman Avenue, Key West.
- Thursday, Jan. 11: Marathon Government Center, BOCC Room, 2798 Overseas Highway, Marathon.
- Monday, Jan. 15: Keys Community Church, 30300 Overseas Highway (in front of former Habitat ReStore), Big Pine Key.
- Monday, Jan. 22: Sugarloaf Fire Station, 17175 Overseas Highway, Sugarloaf Key.
The estimated proportion of Keys residents who evacuated for Hurricane Irma was between 80 percent and 90 percent.
At the November Monroe County Board of Commissioners meeting, preliminary damage assessment results were presented that show 4,156 structures throughout Monroe County were either destroyed or suffered major damage due to Hurricane Irma. These numbers do not include a full accounting of lost mobile homes which served as full-time residences.