Residents of the Middle Keys city of Marathon may be able to return Sunday, a top town official said during an online press conference Friday.
“Right now as we speak, we’re working on a plan to get everybody back some time this weekend,” Chuck Lindsey, city manager said. “Our goal is to get it done Sunday, Sunday night at the latest.”
Marathon is still mostly without power, fuel and running water, but Lindsey said letting people get back home will give them a chance to start preparing their homes for recovery.
“I believe it’s safe enough for our people, the people of Marathon, who are incredibly resilient, to get back to their homes, to take care of their homes, to lessen and mitigate the damage that will start occuring if we don’t get soon,” Lindsey said.
The caveat, Lindsey said, is that if you do come back, be prepared to be self-sufficient.
“Plan on no power. Plan on no water. Plan on the heat. Plan on the mosquitoes,” he said.
Lindsey’s announcement came hours after other local, state and federal officials discussed when to start considering letting people in the Keys come back home. As of Friday afternoon, only upper Keys residents and business owners from mile marker 73 in Lower Matecumbe north to Key Largo were allowed to return to the Keys.
Officials won’t move the checkpoint south to the Seven Mile Bridge until they have assurances that the Hurricane Irma-battered infrastructure along the island chain to that point is ready to admit residents safely.
“We have to manage expectations,” Marty Senterfitt, director of Monroe County Emergency Management, said on the conference call. “We need a lot of things to be in place before we can do this.”
Among the assurances emergency and city officials will need answers to before they can sign off on opening U.S. 1 to residents along the way to Marathon: where to shelter people whose homes are inhabitable, whether the roads are sufficiently cleared, and whether electricity, water and places to find supplies like food will be ready to serve an influx of people. Marathon is home to about 8,700 people and many have pushed aggressively in recent days to return.
“We need to get in front of the challenge we have. If we can mitigate all those things we will proceed but we need some help from here to make it happen,” Senterfitt said. “If it’s in a day, it’ll be a day. If it’s in four days, it will be four days. But we will get them home as soon as possible.”
Lindsey had a question on the availability of a Red Cross shelter.
“We need an update on a mass shelter expert from the Red Cross who can answer how we will shelter 2,000 to 3,000 people who will get home and find they don’t have homes and we need to shelter them.”
An answer was expected by early Friday afternoon.
For days, lower and mid-Key residents anxious to return home have queued up along the Overseas Highway by a checkpoint near Mile Marker 73, begging law enforcement officers to let them go home.
Tempers have flared as officials have offered scant details on why residents are being barred from returning home and when they might be let back.
A Big Pine Key resident emailed the Miami Herald on Friday, noting that Monroe County’s Twitter account on Friday hailed the Florida Department of Transportation for a “fabulous job getting U.S. 1 in Keys back to normal.” The tweet noted that all the road work was done and debris had been removed.
“So why won’t they let people in?,” the woman asked.
Optimism, after days of uncertainty and rising anger from residents of the Lower Keys who have been barred from venturing south beyond Lower Matecumbe Key (about mile marker 73), seemed to be building.
“I’m amazed at the progress we’re making,” said Monroe Sherrif Rick Ramsay. “We’re getting back to normal life. I had power at my house in Marathon and the water pressure was as good as I’ve noted it to be.”
The dusk to dawn curfew in the Keys has been moved up to 10 p.m. to dawn to allow those in the Keys opportunities to gas up and get food at stations and stores that have been able to open.
Electricity has been restored to about 60 to 65 percent of customers, but about 10,000 are still without power in the Keys and that number may be as high as 4,500 in the Marathon area.
Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Executive Director Kirk Zuelch said the waste water plants are operational but cautioned that if Marathon opens to residents it’s “sanitation use only.”
The Department of Transportation has also cleared the Overseas Highway and made significant repairs to roadways from Mile Maker 74 north. Some minor shoulder work remains to be done “but not as an emergency,” a DOT official said. “Whatever we had before the storm, as far as pavement goes, we have today.”
Monroe County Schools expects to stagger the opening of schools in each region as soon as the infrastructure can support reopenings.
Key West progress
Key West is also showing significant signs of progress that would allow residents to return to the southernmost portion of the island chain.
“The clean up is going well,” said Key West City Manager Jim Scholl. “We expect to host residents soon along those lines but my personal return threshold is water and the hospital. If we’re having a majority of residents here I need the hospital to be working, for obvious reasons, and the grocery stores back online.
“I don’t know that I can support the majority of residents with relief supplies,” Scholl said. “I need assurances of electrical safety if we bring back residents, especially with children. We don’t want electrocutions. And we’d need propane to boil water.”
The Publix at Searstown Shopping Center on Roosevelt Boulevard is partly operational and the Winn-Dixie in the Overseas Market on Roosevelt has enough employees to be partially functional when it’s open to residents, Scholl said.
Added Key West Police Chief Donie Lee, “If we open up, we need a jail. Fuel, food, water, ice is still a necessity.”
But, as with Marathon and other affected Lower Keys locations like Big Pine Key, Sugarloaf and Cudjoe Key, the locations south of Lower Matecumbe Key still need electricians and plumbers to be able to travel beyond the current checkpoints so repairs can be made before allowing residents back, Scholl said.
There have been reports that some essential people, like plumbers, who would be tasked with repairing water lines on personal properties, have been held back at the checkpoints.
Senterfitt assured that these maintenance crews would be allowed through.
Outraged and displaced residents may have lost their possessions, but not their sense of humor. One vented on Change.org, which hosts various petitions and grievances.
“Hey Monroe County (Board of County Commissioners), we seceded once. We can do it again. Let us come home! Mutiny,” reads the petition that gathered more than 2,000 signatures in two days.
The petition, which its author Dan Gilroy said was a “little satire spin” on an otherwise grim topic, also notes that residents “are tired of looking at droves of news reporters (who don't live there), who can’t form a decent knot in a tie let alone a bowline in 12’ seas, and who think that Marathon is 12 miles from Key Largo ... reporting from streets that have plenty of traffic in the background, while we sleep in our cars.”