Florida Keys not alone after Hurricane Irma ruins tropical haven

Authorities move to prevent public health crisis in Monroe County

MONROE COUNTY, Fla. – It has been four days since Hurricane Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key and the residents who stayed behind were still under a strictly enforced "dusk-to-dawn" curfew Thursday.

The storm surge swept in boats from the ocean like toys and flooded parked cars and campers. The 700 or so residential and commercial buildings took a beating from the fury of the 130 mph sustained winds.

Search and rescue teams were still looking through debris and under homes raised on stilts. Most of the 1,700 residents of the key evacuated before the storm. 

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said every house on the Florida Keys was impacted in some way. Even the concrete homes on stilts suffered some damage. Big Pine, Little Torch, Summerland and Sugarloaf keys got the worst of the storm. 

According to Karen Clark & Co., a leading catastrophe-modeling firm, the estimated insured losses from Irma in the U.S. were $18 billion and most of the devastation was in the Florida Keys, particularly to the east of the Cudjoe Key landfall.  

The days ahead were difficult for residents of the Florida Keys, but they were not alone. The Department of Defense took over the area to help FEMA and state and local authorities deal with the mess the Category 4 storm left behind.

While U.S. Southern Command was dealing with the evacuation of American citizens from St. Martin to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Northern Command was operating in South Florida. 

Florida Highway Patrol troopers were assisting with road blocks and not allowing anyone to travel south of Mile Marker 73. Some of the evacuees were running out of money and were eager to come back home to assess the damage, but only those who stayed behind remained in the Florida Keys. 

Patricia Morrow, a domestic worker, took refuge at her employer's house in Islamorada, a village of some 6,600 residents. She decided to stay, because she knew it would be hard to get back in. 

"We are fortunate enough we have most of our belongings and memories," Morrow said. "You can replace little things, but you can't replace life."

Cammy Clark, Monroe County's public information officer, said eight people died during the storm. At the Monroe County Emergency Operations Center, there was a rush to prevent a worsening health emergency during a humanitarian crisis.

The National Guard was on the ground while the U.S. Coast Guard and Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection were assisting on the water.

The main artery connecting the Florida Keys archipelago was clear and there were distribution points for free water and food. But without workings cars, some Keys residents only had bicycles to get around.

Crews from the Keys Energy Services and the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative were working to restore power. There were signs of normalcy starting to come up in areas where services were restored. The Publix Super Market at 3316 N. Roosevelt Blvd., reopened in Key West, the island city roughly 90 miles north of Cuba, where the storm also roared with fury. 



WHERE TO FIND WATER: There was a precautionary boil water notice in effect. The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority workers were distributing water from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in Summerland Key on Horace Street, Big Pine Key on Drinka Road, and at the Big Coppitt Pump Station on U.S. 1 at Mile Marker 10. 


WHERE TO FIND FOOD: There were food distribution centers at Coral Shores High School, 89901 Old Hwy., in Tarvernier; Marathon High School, 350 Sombrero Beach Rd.; Sugarloaf School, 255 Crane Blvd., in Summerland Key; Searstown Shopping Center at 3316 N. Roosevelt Blvd.; and the National Key Deer Refuge Office 179 Key Deer Blvd., Big Pine Key.  


LIMITED COMMUNICATION: Cell phones were down, but those who could make it to The Green Parrot at 601 Whitehead St., in Key West had access to a coveted landline. 


ABC News Victor Oquendo and the Local 10 News Assignment Desk Team contributed to this report.

About the Authors:

Janine Stanwood joined Local 10 News in February 2004 as an assignment editor. She is now a general assignment reporter. Before moving to South Florida from her Washington home, Janine was the senior legislative correspondent for a United States senator on Capitol Hill.

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.