Learning process

City officials feel more prepared for future storms

Learning process - A boat docked at a dock - Florida Keys
This canal behind Key by the Sea in Marathon is still full of debris.

Thirty-one miles north of where Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sept. 10, Middle Keys officials found themselves in the midst of a crisis situation.

While battling a total loss of services like power and water and trying to restore them, the ultimate decision of when to let residents back into the islands loomed. City Manager Chuck Lindsey said there were two phases: response, which was immediate, and recovery, which continues.

Within the initial response phase, the biggest hurdle was the lack of communication between government officials due to the loss of infrastructure, he said. In the second phase, recovery, Lindsey and Fire Chief John Johnson said the biggest hurdle has been handling resources and a tight budget with such a financial hit.

The costs associated with Hurricane Irma to local governments are staggering. The City of Marathon estimates it has spent more than $30 million. After residents were let back into the Keys on Sept. 17, Lindsey said the goal within the Incident Management Team (housed at Marathon City Hall) was to get people back into their houses and get businesses back up and running to protect the economy and further encourage residents to continue living in the Middle Keys. “Not only was it the largest storm in decades, Marathon recovered extremely quickly,” Lindsey said.

The biggest takeaway from the storm was learning how to navigate the multi-layered response process. “That applies to federal procurement requirements, requesting resources and managing reimbursement. This is an extremely complicated process and there are so many rules and regulations that are constantly changing,” Lindsey said. Lindsey, Johnson, city attorney David Migut and then-Mayor Dan Zieg were part of the ultimate decision-making team.

“The longer-term issue is understanding enough of how the process works and how to get through it,” said City Planner George Garrett.   On the whole, Lindsey, Garrett and Johnson say they feel more prepared for the future after what they experienced in Irma, and they’re amping up their communication methods. “We’re looking into procuring new communication, but we’ve also recently procured old analog technology that worked really well during Irma,” Johnson said.

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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.