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Monroe County reopens Florida Keys to residents after Hurricane Irma

A week after Category 4 storm's hit, tourists are still not welcome

MONROE COUNTY, Fla. – Monroe County evacuees, who waited anxiously after Hurricane Irma, were making their way back home Sunday, but not without Mayor George Nugent's warning. 

"The Keys are not what you left several days ago when you evacuated," Nugent said during a Saturday afternoon press conference. 

Authorities reopened the Florida Keys' Marathon area until mile marker 47, just north of the Seven Mile Bridge, Saturday and the Lower Keys Sunday.  Only those who were able to prove they were residents, business owners or disaster workers were allowed.

"Know that medical services, food, water and electricity are extremely limited," Monroe County spokesperson Cammy Clark said. 

Residents waited in line to pass through a checkpoint in Florida City. Emotions were high as some were denied entry. Tourists were still not allowed in the Florida Keys. 

"Have all your supplies," Monroe County administrator Roman Gastesi said. "Supplies are very limited."

The second checkpoint at mile marker 47 reopened Sunday at 7:30 a.m. Authorities were asking residents to bring provisions and medications to sustain themselves for several days. Services are almost non-existent.

"There is no functioning hospital to admit patients in the Middle or Lower Keys," Clark said. "Fishermen's Hospital in Marathon is not open and the Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West only has its emergency room open."

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What's Next Adventures volunteers work in Marathon, Fla., after Hurricane Irma. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For nearly a week after the Category 4 storm made landfall on Cudjoe Key, access beyond mile marker 74 was limited only to government employees, search-and-rescue personnel, some volunteers and credentialed journalists. 

"We've been very lucky 12 years since Wilma. This is the big one that we have been practicing for," Gastesi said. 

The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, Keys Energy Services and The Florida Keys Electric Coop reported making progress, but the majority of the area remained without power. There was a boil water order. And with FEMA reporting the majority of the buildings were damaged, many residents will find themselves homeless and it is going to be hot this week. 

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Damage in Big Pine Key, Fla., after Hurricane Irma. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

"What ever you do, do not drink the water," Monroe County director of emergency management Marty Senterfitt said. 


Authorities in the Caribbean and the U.S. reported Hurricane Irma-related circumstances left 74 people dead. Nine of those deaths were in Monroe County and that number could grow as residents head back to hard-hit areas. 


Deputies identified a 62-year-old man found dead Saturday in Big Pine Key but they had yet to notify his family. Monroe County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Deputy Becky Herrin said detectives were struggling to identify four  white men who were found dead. 


Three of the men have grey hair and wore a beard. Rescue personnel found one under rubble on 28th Street in Marathon, another was in a partially sunken boat offshore of Stock Island and another -- who was wearing a red life jacket -- was across from the Big Pine Key cemetery.


A 59-year-old man who was injured after falling was pronounced dead at Jackson Memorial Hospital, but he also has yet to be identified. 

Gastesi said making a decision about when to allow residents to return to the areas destroyed was tough. 

"We know there will be many challenges ahead, especially for our hardest hit areas in the Lower Keys, but we want our residents and business owners to come back to rebuild their lives, their livelihoods and our economy," Gastesi said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency was still involved in the recovery effort. They were working in coordination with the Department of Defense and other federal agencies.

FEMA announced the U.S. Postal Service resumed delivery and retail operations in Key Largo and Tavernier, and the Social Security Cycle 3 payments will be delivered Sept. 20. The National Guard continued their search and rescue efforts this weekend. 

"There is a heavy law enforcement presence in that area to prevent looting and provide security," Clark said. 

The U.S. Coast Guard worked with the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Key West to open the shipping channel from the sea buoy to the Mole Pier. The Port of Key West reopened with restrictions Friday.  

"Our goal is to fully open the Port of Key West for all navigational needs as soon as possible, but we first have an obligation to ensure safety of the port and vessels," said Coast Guard Capt. Jeffrey Janszen, the commander of the Key West sector. 

The Federal Aviation Administration was sending a large mobile air traffic control tower to Key West. 


 "We are prepared to restore the Keys back to the special paradise we love," Gastesi said. 


ACCESS TO SHELTERS: The Red Cross opened shelters at Marathon Middle High School, 250 Sobrero Beach Rd., and Island Christian High School, 83400 Overseas Hwy., in Islamorada. They were also getting ready to open shelters at Sugarloaf High School, 255 Crane Blvd., in Summerland Key, Key West High School, 2100 Flagler Ave., and Coral Shores High School, 89901 Old Hwy., in Tavernier. 


ACCESS TO HEALTHCARE: Also in Tavernier, the Mariners Hospital opened Friday. The Community Health for South Florida also opened its Tavernier Health Center, 91200 Overseas Highway, for primary care and pediatric services. There were also medical care stations at Florida Keys Community College on Stock Island and at Marathon City Hall. The Department of Health and Human Services activated their 1-800-985-5990 helpline. 


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 ICE: Winn-Dixie and Sanderson Farms were giving free ice to Big Pine Key residents at 251 Key Deer Blvd. The Fresco y Más Grocery Store will start distributing free ice at 10 a.m. 


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. Monroe County has an information hotline: 1-800-955-5504.


HAZARDS AT SEA: The U.S. Coast Guard was asking the public to report hazards to navigation at 304-433-3352.



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.