ropical Storm Eta barreled into the Upper Keys on the evening of Nov. 8 as winds exceeding 60 mph downed large limbs onto roads and homes. Brush covered streets as residents woke up to assess the aftermath and begin cleanup the following morning.
Water inundated some streets, including Stillwright Point and parking lots like Pink Plaza. Utility crews were out restoring power in various Upper Keys communities throughout the day.
Eta’s wicked winds resulted in several trees crashing down onto homes. The Key Largo Fire Department responded to call for major structural damage caused by a falling tree near MM 103 on Sunday night. Captain Chris Jones said one person was taken to the hospital with a minor injury.
The fire department helped Monroe County Public Works, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Keys Electric Cooperative in clearing roads Monday.
“There were multiple calls (on the night of Nov. 8), but due to high winds and inclement weather, we weren’t allowed to respond, just like most other agencies weren’t responding to anything that wasn’t considered critical. We went out (the next) morning to all the pending calls, which were downed lines and trees across the road,” Jones said.
FKEC said power service from the county line to Seven Mile Bridge held up overnight as Eta mainly wreaked havoc on the Upper Keys. Around 20 outages were seen, affecting around 1,000 FKEC meters.
Large gumbo limbo limbs and other debris had portions of Bonita Avenue and Biscayne Road impassable to vehicle traffic throughout the morning. One gumbo limbo limb fell from Corey and Peg Bryan’s property at the corner of Biscayne Drive and Bonita Avenue, while other limbs fell across the street. The cleanup effort began at 6 a.m. as the two, who work for the sheriff’s office, received help from fellow crews, deputies and neighbors.
“The whole road was closed. It was insane,” Corey said.
Peg said other fallen trees from across the road were stuck in trees on their property.
“I don’t even know how we’re going to get them out,” she said. “Look at that gumbo limbo, you can see where it cracked. If it didn’t get caught in that other tree, it would have fallen into our power line. We’re pretty lucky.”
Virgil Valdes lives across the street from the Bryans at the other corner of Biscayne Road and Bonita Avenue. With chainsaw in hand, Valdes started cutting fallen trees and clearing his residence at 6:30 a.m. He recalled the moment he heard the gumbo limbo limb crash from the Bryans’ property.
“We heard a noise, and I came out and thought something landed on the car. As I came out and looked (across the street), all that just came crashing down,” he said.
Valdes said limbs and debris were falling onto his house all night.
“Crazy,” he said.
Resident Lauren Jenkins said a large tree limb came crashing down onto her vehicle.
“It fell right onto the driver window,” she said.
Near Ballyhoo’s restaurant in Key Largo, a large billboard came crashing down onto an adjacent property. It also brought down a live wire. Francis Fresh Produce’s tent caved in with fruits and vegetables remaining on the table and largely going unscathed. Trees in the medians of U.S. 1 were tipped over, while debris filled the entryway to John Pennekamp State Park. Gates reopened to the public on Nov. 10 for day use, but the campground was under repair.
Further north, Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park remained closed to the public as rangers worked to check the trails.
At Stillwright Point in Key Largo, public works crews were spotted pumping water completely covering Sexton Way and a portion of North Blackwater Lane. Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi and Assistant County Administrator Kevin Wilson were out surveying the scene and assessing the damage following Eta. Gastesi said he’s concerned about the low-lying areas that continue to see flooding.
“We have special meetings coming later this month. We got a county commission meeting on the 17th that we’ll be talking about it. Then we have another meeting on the 18th to talk about it also.”
Many residents in Stillwright Point parked their cars on higher ground near U.S. 1 to avoid any chances of having to drive their cars through the high waters. Resident Emilie Caldwell Stewart said Eta felt every bit as bad as Hurricane Wilma.
“My house was moving with the wind gusts,” she said.
As for flooding, Caldwell Stewart said she expected worse than what was witnessed. But they don’t know how high waters will reach today between tidal flooding that continues to plague the community and more possible rain.
“A lot of people who live here moved their cars toward U.S.1 because of the anticipated flooding,” she said. “It was the right thing to do, but not so that we can use them … everybody’s afraid their cars would be ruined.”
One item that was a bit of concern for FKEC was the Florida City to Tavernier transmission line that relayed out around 10:30 p.m. on Nov. 8 and remained out throughout the next morning. Officials say there was a bad insulator on Florida Power and Light’s side of the transmission system near the Aerojet Canal.
FKEC relied on the other main transmission line to deliver power from the mainland to the Florida Keys. A fault between Florida City and Tavernier on the remaining transmission circuit would likely result in an outage affecting the entire Keys. FPL informed FKEC that the extra-high-voltage repair required special heavy equipment.
Besides debris on the road, Islamorada went unscathed from any major incidents. A cable wire dangled at Whale Harbor Bridge that required the U.S. Coast Guard’s attention. Utility crews were on scene to resolve the issue.
“We fared really well,” said Islamorada Fire Chief Terry Abel.
Islamorada Fire Rescue completed a pass-through of the village the next morning and identified only minor areas of debris and seaweed that needed to be cleared. No village-wide damage assessments were identified. Public works staff were out conducting some clean-up of rights-of-way.
Village officials say the wastewater system held up well with no water intrusion impacting system operations like that experienced in recent heavy rain events. Village staff went back to village hall normal operating hours, and the marina and Founders Park amenities reopened.
Monroe County Solid Waste workers swept the Upper Keys area with a clam truck for debris that didn’t fit in the regular yard waste collection, like trees, large tree limbs, mangled patio furniture, or sheds.
Debris that does not fit in trash cans or can be bundled were picked up during regular collection. Debris that didn’t fit in regular trash collection can be separate yard trash from other trash (metals, roofs, etc.). Items in the Upper Keys need to be placed curbside by the end of the day on Friday, Nov. 13.