MARATHON, Fla. — Authorities opened Marathon to residents Saturday, but urged them to come prepared with supplies, medications and anything else they can collect before they return home to the badly damaged low-lying island chain a week after Hurricane Irma battered the Florida Keys.
“We’ve gone through some difficult times here. We will go through some more difficult times,” Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent said. “The Keys are not what you left several days ago.”
Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said officials decided to re-open the Lower Keys to allow people to return and assess the damage to their property. Yet the fewer people come back the less they overwhelm existing resources. Plumbers, air conditioning repair workers and other people with skills to help the area recover are needed.
Carruthers said it will be a while before the Florida Keys return to normalcy and the district’s announcement that schools will re-open on Sept. 25 will help that happen.
“People need to be prepared for primitive conditions,” Carruthers said.
Frustrated residents camped out at a checkpoint during the week demanding re-entry into the lower parts of the chain of islands. Yet some understand the need to stay away and allow recovery crews to clean-up and re-establish power, water and cell phone service.
“I understand why they keep you away and you would want to be away,” said Tim O’Hara, a reporter at the Key West Citizen newspaper who evacuated to Savannah, Ga. “You wouldn’t want to be down there sweating all night long.”
O’Hara, his wife and son went to Tampa last Friday but after they saw Hurricane Irma was headed that way they moved to Savannah. He said evacuating has been stressful for his 5-year-old because they switched to four different locations between a friend’s house, an Airbnb and hotels.
“I can tell it’s been tough on him because he keeps telling me, ‘Can we go home?’” O’Hara, 48, said.
Co-workers who stayed behind told him his second-floor apartment, built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, didn’t sustain damage. A friend in Summerland Key, however, lost his home and another in Cudjoe Key doesn’t know what his house will look like when he returns, O’Hara said. He will begin heading back Sunday morning.>
Monroe County officials will open up U.S. Highway 1 all the way to Key West as of 7 a.m. on Sunday. The storm destroyed portions of the road, which have now been rebuilt, knocked down power lines and severed drinking-water supplies, and cut off cell phone and internet service. The storm also destroyed hundreds of homes, trailers and RVs, along with knocking down awnings over businesses and breaking off gas pumps.
“This is one of the toughest decisions to make, but also an indicator of how well our recovery has been going since the Keys suffered a direct hit by Category 4 Hurricane Irma,” Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said in a statement. “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. We are prepared to restore the Keys back to the special paradise we love.”
Many people refused to leave the Keys during the storm. Evacuees have frantically contacted reporters to get updates on their homes, or tried to pass messages to neighbors, and have been watching Facebook groups for information.
Authorities said they’ve kept people out over fears of what would have potentially been a humanitarian crisis: thousands of people living without access to water, power or sewage disposal. For days, even law enforcement officers were unable to communicate reliably with each other after the storm destroyed radio repeaters and phone lines. Workers are rapidly rebuilding the area's infrastructure. Residents and business owners from the Upper Keys have been able to access the area since Tuesday.
“For those re-entering, know that medical services, food, water, and electricity are extremely limited so returning residents. There is no functioning hospital to admit patients in the Middle or Lower Keys. Fishermen’s Hospital in Marathon is not open and the Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West only has its Emergency Room open,” county officials said in a statement. "Residents returning to the hardest-hit areas ... should know that services are almost non-existent. There is a heavy law enforcement presence in that area to prevent looting and provide security.”
Officials say nine deaths are connected to the storm in the Keys, although it’s unclear how many of them were directly related to the weather. In several cases, authorities said, people with pre-existing health conditions died during the storm. The dead are still being identified and family members notified.