‘I’ll call today’ – Rubio promises support for FEMA funds, canal cleanup - A group of people standing next to a fence - Crowd
Marathon City Manager Chuck Lindsey, left, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi and Marathon Mayor Michelle Coldiron discuss the status of canal cleanup on April 4. KATIE ATKINS/Keys Weekly

The process of preparing for another hurricane season while still recovering from the last one was the main focus for local officials during a visit with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio Wednesday. 

He talked at the Marathon Government Center about Hurricane Irma recovery and reimbursement from the federal government for cleanup costs.

“Local governments have spent a lot of money without any federal help,” Rubio told a table of 20 officials from throughout Monroe County. “It needs to be here, and depending on who you talk to on any given day, it’s either in Tallahassee or in Washington, but it isn’t here.” 

The costs associated with Hurricane Irma to Keys governments total about $150 million, breaking down to $93 million for Monroe County, $6.4 million for the Village of Islamorada, $16.9 for the City of Key West and $30 million for the City of Marathon. 

Rubio mentioned rules created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 because of fraud and illegal activity involving reimbursement funds. 

“There were a lot of things that weren’t right. Now, it’s gone to the other extreme, where reimbursement is taking way too long,” he said, adding some municipalities are taking out lines of credit in order to stay above water.

Marathon has taken out a $10 million line of credit to cover Hurricane Irma recovery costs. Monroe County has a $40 million line of credit. Islamorada and Key West have been able to self-fund projects, but the lack of cash affects which types of projects they can tackle. 

“There are a lot of different things happening at the same time. It’s just a question of making a lot of noise,” Rubio said at a press conference in Marathon prior to his visit at the government center. 

His stop at Key by the Sea RV park was to talk about canal cleanup, the second focal point of his Keys visit. 

Viewing the floating trailers and debris in a long canal tucked between rows of trailers, he asked about how long it would take a contractor to clean one canal.

“About two days,” said Marathon City Manager Chuck Lindsey. 

The canal at Key by the Sea was one of 17 in Marathon heavily affected by Irma. Manatees can be seen swimming around and through trailers still floating near the surface along with docks and other debris.

“Thirty-seven of our canals were almost this bad, and so you can multiply that throughout every municipality in the county,” Lindsey said to Rubio.

Keys officials are pursuing the same type of grant that helped clean up the canals after Hurricane Georges in 1998. 

“There doesn’t seem to be any impediment other than just releasing the funds,” Rubio said. “I’ll call today.”

According to Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi, there is $540 million available to clean canals through a special program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Gastesi said the county has asked for $40 million, adding that would include funds to clean up City of Marathon and Village of Islamorada canals. 

The USDA’s National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) received the application from the Keys on Feb. 15. The state office, in Gainesville, has already approved the eligibility of 103 canals in the Keys and environmental permits from National Oceanic and Atmospheric and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are both in process.

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Katie Atkins is a western New York native who, when not working, can probably be found on the beach with her nose in a book. Sweets are her weakness (10 fillings this year), along with pizza and her adopted senior cat, Buddy.