From Key Largo to Key West, local officials made preparations for Hurricane Irma and, after the storm, started working on recovery. Here, the Weekly talks with Key West’s city manager, the city manager of Marathon and Islamorada’s fire chief, as they look back at the storm and ahead to the return of normal.

Focus on housing, work

Islamorada’s Abel reflects

By Gabriel Sanchez

Islamorada Fire Rescue Chief Terry Abel reflects on Hurricane Irma and its aftermath.

Day one, where did you start?  Clearing U.S. 1 was first priority.  All county assets had evacuated north and needed to get back south to their respective zones and we had to open the road.  Once U.S.1 was open for single path of travel we opened it up to both lanes of travel to make it safer for responders to traverse the area.  Then side streets and damage assessment began.

The biggest challenge during the storm? Communications is always the biggest issue with any large-scale incident.  Everything went down, plan A failed, plan B failed shortly thereafter, then Plan C and plan D, then finally Plan D part Duo worked!

How did you make the decision to let people back in? Letting folks back in was based on infrastructure that was restored or not, safety of citizens once back in. Keep in mind with exception to a very few, no power, no water and limited sewer was an issue for a few days post-storm.  Letting people come directly back was not allowed for health and safety reasons.

How was the crime in Islamorada? Looting? There was some but you can’t stop all of it in the best of times.  The sheriff’s office did a fantastic job of addressing our concerns by increasing patrols and number of units on the road.  Also increasing their visibility; they are there all the time and we don’t notice them patrolling our neighborhoods but when they turn on their blinking lights it gets noticed.  There were some people that took advantage of the situation but for the most part it was people picking through debris piles and people calling it in saying they were looting.  Actually they were picking out stuff to recycle from the piles to make a living and reducing the amount of junk we have to pay to haul away. 

Biggest problem now?  Long-term housing for those that lost their homes.  Unfortunately most that lost everything lived in lower-lying homes or the mobile home parks in our area.  Most live paycheck to paycheck and are completely reliant on tourism dollars to keep their families fed.  Resorts not being able to open up, marinas not taking their charter boats back is really hurting the recovery efforts and that snowballs back on the employees that, if they have to leave, we will not see again. I’ve been saying this from day one — let’s get back to normalcy as quickly as possible and get people working, businesses open.  The piles of debris are short-term; the housing issue and getting folks back to work is the bigger problem.

In the future, would you change how the city handled it? No sir, we pulled contracts early, made requests for resources early.  We did not get it as bad as others for sure but all in all I think we did good.  Was it perfect? Nope.  Can it be better? Almost always. But in the grand scheme of things, it went well.  We will fix any issues between now and the next storm.

‘Two cups and a string’

Key West city manager looks back

By Hays Blinckmann

Key West City Manager Jim Scholl bunked at City Hall during Hurricane Irma, ready to face whatever challenges lay ahead. Contingencies and plans were in place but the post-storm threats to the city were as unpredictable as Irma itself. Scholl, a former Navy pilot, Boy Scout, and Commanding Officer of the Navy base, took the situation in stride. “I’m an operational guy; planning is fine but in the end, it’s about thinking and adapting to the circumstances.” And he did; within days, the recovery effort was felt across the city, a remarkable feat given the situation.

Day one, where did you start?

Our first priority was preliminary damage assessment, checking buildings and the people in shelters. The water surprised everyone and the extensive impact to the aqueduct, but we were lucky because we never stopped pumping to wastewater, we just had to deal with the flow of water in.

Immediately, it was about getting access everywhere for emergency vehicles. There are a lot of wood buildings with propane tanks, so the fire danger was significant, especially with the water problem. We wanted to make sure the trucks that could hold water could get to a fire and if we needed to access a pool or any water resource.

David Clay at the hospital did a fantastic job. The hospital wasn’t admitting patients but it was functional enough to provide medical care for first responders. It really reconstituted quickly, and that was important in case the responders were injured.

The biggest challenge?

The impact on communication was huge. We had to coordinate times to talk, we had satellite phones but someone had to be on the other end. We jerry-rigged a wire from the elevator and connected a princess phone that was our only external communication for a week. It was the Air Force reserves that first got us two long-distance phone lines. Basically it was the Pony Express of people coming and going with information and reliance on police radios.

Unfortunately social media put out a lot of bad information that confused people and made them skeptical. Hey, in City Hall we couldn’t even look at social media at the time; we were two cups and a string, so we were doing the best we could to get the right information out there. Twice I was on live with Anderson Cooper off CNN and he was telling me we were 90 percent destroyed, which wasn’t true. Just because someone wrote it and someone else read it, doesn’t make it true.

Commissioners and city officials got a lot of criticism for evacuating; would they have been vital to the recovery?

Reality is no one should have stayed. There was too much uncertainty. It was prudent for everyone to leave. If a Category 5 or 4 was coming straight for Key West, we all would have left — police, firefighters, and me— and then come back when we could. There is no bravery standing in the path of something deadly. And the reality is we only had Category 1 sustained winds, maybe gusts up to 110? But the island of Key West did not survive a Category 4 storm, so we were in better shape than the rest of the Keys.

How did you make the decision to let people back in?

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to let people back in, but I had to set thresholds to cross. Public health and sanitation was a major concern with the water issues and potential exponential spread of viruses. Plus, (there were) downed power lines, so electrocution was a hazard, hanging tree limbs, environmental hazards everywhere. We were concerned about fuel and food for the people who were already here and didn’t want to compromise recovery resources.

The decision to let people back in came down to three things: health, hospital and grocery stores. When all three of those things were up and running, then I gave the go-ahead.

How was the crime in Key West? Looting?

Almost no criminal activity; everyone behaved very well. Police patrols with flashing lights were a good presence everywhere.

Biggest problem now?

Debris. There is literally thousands of tons of debris. Best guess? It will take a month before the final sweep through the city. All of it will head up to Rockland Key where Toppino has permission to use air curtain incinerators and even open pile burning. And keeping up with the paperwork, the administrative side is very detailed. Everything has to be written down, inspected, documented, so that we can be reimbursed by FEMA.

In the future, would you change how the city handled it?

Not really. We don’t have a lot of in-house training for these situations. The last storm was 2005 and the government has a lot of turnover. I was CO of the base for Wilma but this was still different, a different kind of storm. We have a contract with Early Alert (an emergency management company) which helped significantly and again you can only plan for so much; the rest is about adapting and modifying to situations.

How did our state and federal governments do in terms of helping the Keys?

Governor Rick Scott came multiple times; he was very engaged, well informed and responsive. Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, always answered the phone and got us what we needed. Both are former Navy; we are everywhere. But it really was up to us; Key West was our responsibility first. We have to exceed our ability, then move on to county and state government for help.

Are we open too soon for visitors?

No. We are a tourist-based economy, so opening back up is very, very important to our economic engine. People need jobs and paychecks to recover. We started with cruise ships because they have minimum impact and will slowly normalize from there.

How much time did you spend in City Hall?

I’m a former Boy Scout. I had two weeks’ worth of supplies and my Navy bomber jacket. I was good. I got out Monday at 5 a.m. and checked on my house for 20 minutes — it only had minor damage — and went back there Wednesday for an hour and let the neighbor’s cat out. Let’s just say, I was here long enough.


Recovering before the wind died

‘Marathon will be better than ever’

By Sara Matthis

On Saturday night, as Hurricane Irma approached the shores of the Florida Keys, Marathon City Manager Chuck Lindsey and the city’s emergency management team — Deputy City Manager George Garrett, Mayor Dan Zieg, Attorney David Migut, Councilman Steve Cook, Utilities Director Mark Bombard, Public Works Director Carlos Solis,  Fire Chief John Johnson and the city’s entire fire department — evacuated alongside the county’s team to Ocean Reef. They had long, dark, noisy hours to consider the city’s future post-Irma.

Lindsey, a former Command Master Chief of 24 years with the U.S. Coast Guard, took a disciplined approach to restoring order to the wind- and water-swept city. It began immediately, before the winds had died down.

Day one, where did you start?

Marathon’s storm preparation started well before the storm. Upon being hired, working closely with Johnson, we identified shortfalls in the city’s preparation and understanding of the National Incident Management System, the federal structure for dealing with damaging disaster. We instituted mandatory training and certification for key employees and began a review of our Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan. During the storm, we all collaboratively brainstormed as many possible negative outcomes and identified potential solutions before they happened. We quickly realized that following home searches, house fires would be one of the biggest dangers. After Hurricane Wilma, more than-twenty five homes burned after electricity was restored. As soon as our Incident Management Team (IMT) was stood up at City Hall, one of the first people through the door was engineer Steve Hurley of DDAI. We tasked him with rounding up all the electricians he could find and organizing a house-by-house check for visual damage prior to power being energized. This resulted in no home fires once power was turned on. Our next concern was after the fact water damage and infrastructure integrity. Our utility workers were already going street-by-street to check the vacuum pits of our wastewater collections system. They turned off water at the meter to as many homes as they could reach. We knew that maintaining water pressure for the aqueduct’s entire line was vital and tried to protect property from further damage.

The biggest challenge?

Debris removal, and long-term recovery. The main reason debris removal is slowing down is because it’s not separated into the three categories — vegetative, building and appliances. Everyone’s help would be greatly appreciated to help make the process more efficient. The other challenge we face is keeping everyone optimistic during this difficult time. We need everyone to be patient, kind, and to help our neighbors. Together we can do anything, together we got this!

What about the decision for officials to evacuate? Did it delay recovery?

Absolutely not. We made the decision to evacuate together — that included, county officials, fire departments and the EOC staff. With the information we had at the time, it was absolutely the right decision. A Category 5 was scheduled to make landfall with over 12 hours of hurricane force winds. We needed our responders to be safe and minimally effected to be able to respond as quickly and effectively as possible.

The Marathon team started back to the Middle Keys on Sunday afternoon, before the winds had died down. Clearing the Marathon airport runway was our first primary objective to establish an air bridge and medical transport options. By hand, we pulled aside docks, beds, a Jacuzzi. When Carlos [Solis] arrived, he used a Bobcat we had pre-staged stored at the 104th Street utility building. Then members of Marathon firefighting crew did a FOD (Foreign Object Damage) walk clearing every single nail and piece of metal on the runway. That was finished by the very early morning hours of Monday.

How did you make the decision to let people back in?

Making that decision was extremely collaborative. Everyone weighed in. For Marathon, our primary concern was life safety.  Before anything else, we needed to check every structure to make sure anybody who didn’t evacuate was okay.  And for people to return we needed roads clear of severe hazards, and essential life services to be in place (power, water, sewer).  Once sewer was restored (within 48 hours) we made the decision to allow our residents back without full power and water because one, we knew the spirit and resiliency of our residents and, two, we were watching the miraculous restoration speed of the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative and Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority. So, while Marathon wasn’t fully restored, we decided to allow Marathon residents back in on Sept. 16. We needed the will and support of our own citizens to begin the recovery effort and to begin mitigating their own damages.

What was the law and order situation in Marathon?

Unfortunately, the national media sensationalized what was happening in the Keys. The death rates were being reported as much higher and of course only the most damaged areas were being shown. Due to this we needed to get as much accurate information as we could to our residents. Without a doubt, our tremendous evacuation effort saved lives.  While there were a handful of reports of looting in the Middle Keys, I believe most resulted in arrest. Locking the neighborhoods down, and creating a curfew, was perfect and all that credit goes to Sheriff Rick Ramsay and his officers for the tremendous effort. I believe this was one of the best decisions made throughout the entire crises and I know put a lot of people’s mind at ease when not being allowed back in.

Biggest problem now?

What keeps me up at night is the worry families will leave Marathon. They are or backbone, the people that make up this incredible town. We need that school teacher, that gardener, that small business owner — we don’t want them to relocate. My goal is for us to keep up this pace and ensure that dramatic, visible improvement happens every day. Showing that improvement and that together we can recover quickly, will hopefully encourage families to stay as well as show that Marathon is still on the map.

In the future, would you change how the city handled it?

Crisis is crisis, its chaos. You can plan for managing the crisis through training, but it’s hard to stay proficient unless you are doing it all the time. Our fire fighters and deputies are the perfect example. They executed their daily missions flawlessly; road by road, house by house because they are proficient in managing crisis. My hope is to continue qualifying staff and key officials in emergency management to respond to events throughout the country. Applying the skills and training is crucial to maintaining any type of proficiency. Our staff did an incredible job, but I want to help them get even better.

Communications is always the most crucial part of response and we knew that communications would be down. So we did it the old-fashioned way — with rally points, daily meetings, check-ins, and limited use of the fire department radio and VHF/UHF radio systems. We even anticipated the need for runners to carry messages to the county EOC.

How did our state and federal governments do in terms of helping the Keys?

The state did an amazing job, considering the fact that every part of Florida was affected. The federal government did an amazing job considering the fact that they are handling not only the Florida situation, but also Texas and Puerto Rico. They are stretched thin. If we had been the only disaster, then we would have had all hands on deck.

Are we open too soon for visitors?

That’s a great question and I have a “chicken and the egg” answer for you. We have to be able to get resources, aid, and recovery to our residents but we also have to get our small businesses and economy going to keep our families here. You got to have both. Many of our residents’ employment is directly or indirectly affected by tourism.  We have to find balance and I believe we are doing just that.

How much time did you spend in City Hall?

We lived at City Hall, literally, and our entire fire department lived at the Fire House 24/7. All of our crews slept on tables, chairs, and the floor. Every office, conference room was taken. Many didn’t go home until over a week after the storm passed. The fire department and city staff continue to work seven days a week.


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