Every Florida Keys resident who recalls Hurricane Irma also remembers the bitter, post-storm feud between anxious officials and angry evacuees, desperate to re-enter the Keys and survey their damaged homes.
In the months following Hurricane Irma, Marty Senterfitt, who at the time was Monroe County’s emergency management director, acknowledged the unique abilities of Keys residents to get things done after a hurricane.
Senterfitt envisioned a program that would train volunteer residents to be self-sufficient and storm-proficient following a hurricane. The resulting certification would enable those residents to return to the Keys before the rest of the population via an early re-entry placard. “After Irma … I decided … I’m not working for the government; I’m going to work for the people of the Florida Keys,” Senterfitt said in May 2018. “They’re the ones who can get things done around here after a storm. There’s such an energy in this community and a willingness to be part of the solution.”
That solution now includes the Monroe Emergency Reserve Corps, or MERC. Launched in October 2018, MERC now includes a group of trained community volunteers who are eligible for an early re-entry placard once their MERC certification is complete.
“We heard up and down the Keys that people wanted to be allowed back into the Keys sooner for the next storm,” Senterfitt said in 2018 while developing the program that would enable evacuees to return early and ensure they are part of the solution, not the problem. “Honestly, it’s amazing to see what’s possible when the government listens to its people.”
The Monroe Emergency Reserve Corps, now under the leadership of Kim Koch, has trained more than 500 members since 2018.
“Beginning with ourselves, we will be prepared to work together as emergency response teams to assist our families, neighbors and community in a time of disaster or need through volunteer services that protect life, environment and property,” states the MERC vision. “We are committed to providing the best public service through education, training and volunteer service. Our vision is to support first responders with trained volunteers that organize themselves at the time of disaster or need and provide immediate assistance.”
In addition to their anticipated work in the wake of a storm, MERC members have been activated during the pandemic to volunteer at food distribution sites and to make isolation gowns for hospital workers, Koch said.
MERC training — and the associated early re-entry placard — first requires participants to complete a free online class designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The class is available anytime online.
Once the FEMA course is complete, participants must complete 16 hours of in-person classroom training offered over two days at various times and locations throughout the Keys. The online FEMA course is a prerequisite for the in-person training. The third phase of hands-on training includes four hours of practical skills and exercises in first aid and fire safety, Koch said.
She recently had to convert the scheduled spring classroom sessions to a virtual platform due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I had to be sure the training remains accurate, informational and applicable for our early re-entry placard members,” Koch said, adding that upcoming training schedules and additional information are available on the MERC website.
MERC members come from all walks of life and have a variety of skills, talent and experience.
MERC members eligible for early re-entry placards
Membership has its privileges, and certified members of the Monroe Emergency Reserve Corps (MERC) are eligible for an Early Re-Entry Placard that will allow them back into the Florida Keys earlier than residents who did not complete the MERC training for self-sufficiency following a hurricane and/or evacuation.
Monroe County residents are not required to have an Early Re-Entry Placard to return to their homes. They will just return at a later date than those who completed the three-step MERC training.
“MERC has been tasked to provide residents with a large overview and some very specific information for them to be able to return to an area that has been affected by an incident/disaster and maintain safety, health and wellness for their families and themselves,” the MERC website states. “The early re-entry placard program is a volunteer program. The resident has made the decision that they would like to have an early re-entry. The early re-entry placard is for those residents that wish to have early re-entry prior to the community infrastructure and assets being restored. “
MERC members are under no obligation to volunteer in the aftermath of a hurricane or other disaster.
“Their only responsibility when participating in the early re-entry placard program is that they return with the needed supplies to fend for themselves, their family and anyone else who returns with them and to maintain safety, health and wellness for their families and themselves as learned through their training — to be self-sustained and self-contained.
Early re-entry will only be permitted when county officials authorize the use of the early re-entry placards.
“The county has made no guarantees as to when and if they will make that determination, and their use will be evaluated after each disaster/incident. The re-entry timeline is based upon the location and extent of damage,” the MERC website states.
Residents looking to obtain an early re-entry placard may go to mercorps.org/2020-classes for training requirements.