Angry residents of the Lower Keys who evacuated for Hurricane Irma seethed Thursday at the county’s continued refusal to let them return home, worried about their losses and increasingly frustrated that no one is telling them when they may be able to go back.
Several repeatedly begged law enforcement officers manning a tent in the middle of the Overseas Highway to let them go back home.
“The last time the officer said ‘I don’t even have the time to argue with you guys,’ and just turned his back and walked away,” said Teiger Corazon, 30, whose family sat dejected, 20 yards from the blockade and 20 miles from home.
She and her family have been trying to get back to Marathon for three days. They got further than they ever had on Thursday, but it still wasn’t far enough. Spurned by authorities who say the conditions are too perilous to let residents return, they sat and stewed and said they’d never again choose to evacuate.
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“I’d rather have them carry me in an ambulance up to Miami” than evacuate, said Corazon’s boyfriend, Denny Valladares, 27, who joined her just past mile marker 73.
Bryan Cook, deputy public information officer for Monroe County, said emergency management services staff members are working as fast and as hard as they can to make the Florida Keys safe for residents to return. Only emergency services, disaster management services and supplies were being allowed past the checkpoint at this time, he said.
“Please, please practice patience,” Cook said. “There’s no 911 service, no water, no electricity. People up north think we’re not doing anything, or we’re not doing enough. We’re doing everything we can.”
But Valladares and his family were far from the only residents of the vast string of islands who expressed fury, threatening that they won’t leave their homes and businesses next time.
“They told us if we left, they’d let us return. And now they’re not doing it for any good reason,” David Marciniak, who owns a rental home in Marathon and lives in Cudjoe Gardens on Cudjoe Key, said in a call to the Miami Herald from where he was temporarily staying in Boca Raton. “All this means is that people are never going to leave again.”
Valladares’ mother, Judith Silva, whose family owns King Seafood Market and Restaurant in Marathon, said this was the first time she evacuated for a hurricane. It will also be her last.
“If they pick up 10 people dead now, they’re going to have 200 people dead at the next storm,” Silva said.
That’s a terrible attitude to have, Cook cautioned. The death toll in the Keys so far is eight people, and if more people didn’t evacuate it would have been much higher, he said.
“Evacuating is always the right decision when a storm like this is coming,” Cook said. “Property is not the priority. Always put your life over your property.”
The rage extended online, where hundreds vented on social media groups set up for communications on Irma for Keys residents.
“F*** you Rick Ramsey,” wrote Pat Ryan, referring to the Monroe County sheriff, in the Facebook group FL Keys Resident Irma Communication. “Never evacuating again.”
But some defended the county’s decision to keep the Lower Keys blocked, even calling the residents trying to get back “idiots.”
“How stupid can some of you be? Let the Emergency measures do their work,” wrote Michael Ritchie on the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners Facebook page. “You want to go where there is no potable water no food and sanitary issues? Really?”
“I understand your property concerns. I have two in the city of key west,” he continued. “But let these people do their work for crying out loud! Your house ain’t gonna rot because you have to wait another 72 hours. Think about the big picture instead of your own pea brain selves!”
But Silva is fed up with how officials have handled Hurricane Irma in the Keys, starting with her decision to seek shelter in the first place. She said she and her family tried to go to Marathon High School for shelter Saturday morning, but law enforcement told them it would likely be closing. They made the decision to decamp to family in Miami, only to later find that the Marathon shelter did not close.
That’s because Marathon High School was not technically a shelter, but a “refuge of last resort,” Cook said. It was not established as a shelter and had no supplies or official staff. But when residents showed up and it was too late to evacuate, they were allowed to stay as an alternative to staying in inadequate housing.
Now, as residents such as Marciniak and the Silvas try to get back, they say officials aren’t even telling them why they’re not allowed to go home. They’re rejected at a tent in the middle of the road, with few signs spelling out the closure until they arrive at it. There a sign reads “NO RESIDENT ENTRY/BEYOND THIS POINT/TURN AROUND NOW.”
That’s after residents have likely driven in bumper to bumper traffic for an hour. Cook said only residents of the Upper Keys are allowed past Florida City.
Marciniak said he has all the provisions he needs to survive for weeks once he gets home, and it was critical he assess the damage to his property sooner rather than later. Silva agreed and said she needed to check on her livelihood.
“We need to start picking up the pieces of whatever we have left,” she said.
Two men who were trying to get home to Marathon for the second time Thursday were told by officers they would be arrested if they returned a third time.
“Three strikes and you’re out,” a Herald reporter overheard the officer say. Cook said he was not aware of any arrests made at the checkpoint.
Silva said sarcastically she would rather be arrested than keep getting turned away, since then they would at least have air conditioning and food.
“What else do we have to lose?” she said.
Curtis Morgan contributed to this report.