Canals in Florida Keys remain littered with debris after Hurricane Irma

Monroe County negotiating with state about who will clean up waterways

By Liane Morejon - Reporter

BIG PINE KEY, Fla. - Residents in the Florida Keys are still cleaning up after Hurricane Irma, and the biggest problem right now is that all of the storm debris is still littering canals.

Paula Rybacki showed Local 10 News reporter Liane Morejon the canal behind her home in the Avenues area of Big Pine Key. 

"This was so covered, we couldn't even get back in there," she said. 

Rybacki's home was destroyed in the hurricane. 

"It was a baby blue conch cottage, very much the Key West style, Dade County Pine," Rybacki said. 

Rybacki now lives in a travel trailer, which is parked where the home once stood. Every day or so, she comes out to pull what she can from the clogged canal, which has been clogged with garbage and debris since September.

"Piece by piece, (I) just throw it up; try to make different piles," Rybacki said. "There's shoes, propane tanks, dressers we've pulled out, plates, dishes."

Rybacki said the most ironic thing that she found in the canal was a ship in a bottle that was still intact.

According to Monroe County officials, a unified command of agencies, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Coast Guard, removed at least $1,650 boats from Florida Keys waterways.

But the county and state are still negotiating how to deal with the rest of the large debris and rotting trash, which sit mainly in the worst-hit middle to lower Keys.

Multiple cars, boats and even full trailers remain submerged. Monroe County officials said it's taken months to iron out an agreement between Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, the county and the Keys' five municipalities.

"We haven't even started," Monroe County administrator Roman Gastesi said about removing debris from canals. "We've done a few here and there to open up some canals, but we're working with the state to figure out who's going to do it. That's not been established yet."

Besides deciding who does what and when, Gastesi said there are only so many places to dump the debris -- sites that are only starting to open up now that the land debris project is nearing completion.

"The Keys -- we don't have farmland or the boonies to take it to and get it out of the way," Gastesi said.

The marine cleanup is estimated to cost several million dollars. Officials call the task ahead unprecedented, and the wait is frustrating for those still living among Irma's destruction.

"(There are) volunteer groups and people that pick up little by little, but we can only do so much," Rybacki said. "We need equipment here."

Brian Vest, of Big Pine Key, is one of the volunteers who has been removing debris from canals by kayak.

"There's nothing for the chairs and gas cans and paint cans and batteries that are all there. We're going to get them out ourselves," Vest said.

Every few weeks, Vest and a group of volunteers take to the waterways on their kayaks to remove as much of debris as possible.

"They weren't doing anything about the trash in the canals, which I can show you," he said. "So we got about 28 people together, and jumped in the water with kayaks, and cleaned it up, and it just went viral." 

Vest is hosting a cleanup on Saturday beginning at 9 a.m. Volunteers are asked to meet at the Old Wooden Bridge at 1791 Bogie Drive on Big Pine Key. 

Nearly 100 people on kayaks are expected to help with the cleanup efforts. The cleanup will be done in partnership with sponsors Costa Sunglasses, Jose Wejebe Spanish Fly Memorial and Reef Relief.

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