Time is of the essence

Key West city manager looks back on Irma

Learning process - A palm tree on a street - Palm trees
The Southernmost Beach expanded northward with flooding from hurricane Irma. By Thursday crews were already working to put the sand back where it belongs.

Constant weather updates are just one of the perks of having an Emergency Operations Center and City Hall across the street from the National Weather Service – especially if there’s a hurricane coming. In September, it meant the City of Key West, its staff, police and fire department had a good idea about the intensity and possible outcome of Hurricane Irma.

“We were all able to stay and ride it out,” said City Manager Jim Scholl, adding that the building at 1300 White St. made it through the storm in fine fashion.

The biggest, most immediate hurdle for Southernmost City officials was getting recovery initialized, he said. “We were working to get the roads open so emergency vehicles could move. The hospital was at the top tier of restoration of services and of course, our wastewater treatment plant to keep everything functioning,” he said.

Patients were evacuated from the 167-bed Lower Keys Medical Center on Stock Island five days before the Sept. 10 storm. Its emergency room reopened just six days after Irma. Residents were allowed to return exactly one week after the storm.

The biggest lesson learned during Hurricane Irma was that all hurricanes are unpredictable.

“So it’s really a gamble for anybody to not evacuate. The other issue with that is you need to evacuate early, because as we saw with the evacuation and the path of Irma, it was going to impact South Florida and there’s just not enough fuel,” Scholl said. “I think it can be very challenging if you wait to the last minute to evacuate.”

And if you don’t absolutely need to stay, you need to evacuate, said Key West Mayor Craig Cates. “We all learned a lot from this storm and I believe the most important lessons were, if you don’t absolutely have to stay, you need to evacuate; and start earlier with your storm preparations because you quickly run out of time,” he said.

On the off chance someone decides not to evacuate, Scholl said they should have more water than they think they need. “And enough food to last a couple weeks,” he said.

Even though Key West escaped the worst of the hurricane damage, the city still had a curfew and lacked power and water for days.

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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.