Monroe County Mayor George Neugent goes before the media to inform residents and visitors that the County has issued mandatory evacuations for everyone in the Florida Keys due to the imminent arrival of Hurricane Irma.
Hurricane Irma - Before the Category 4 Storm Strikes the Keys
On Friday, Sept. 1, 2017, Monroe County’s Emergency Management hosted a video meeting to provide emergency responders throughout the Keys with an update from the National Weather Service about a monster storm out in the Atlantic. It was called Hurricane Irma.
After monitoring the situation over the holiday weekend, Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt officially activated Emergency Operations at 7 a.m. on Labor Day, Sept. 4.
For the next six days, County staff and other emergency responders worked almost around the clock to prepare for the hurricane that was fluctuating between Category 4 and 5, and whose eye was likely to directly strike the 120-mile island chain – somewhere.
The first priority was to prevent loss of life. Mandatory evacuation notices were issued for all visitors on Wednesday morning, Sept. 6, and for all residents that night.
The storm was forecast to pack a big punch to the Keys, with high winds of more than 130 mph and storm surge of several feet. The message was simple: “Get out of the Keys.”
Emergency Management helped coordinate the evacuation of people with special needs, brought in military aircraft to transport hospital patients to other medical facilities, and arranged for extra transportation to take people to the mainland. It also worked to keep fuel trucks coming to the Keys as long as it was safe to resupply gas stations.
Emergency Management worked to open and stock preplanned emergency shelters on the mainland to house Monroe County residents – and their pets.
As a last resort for residents who did not leave despite the mandatory evacuation notice, Emergency Management worked with the School District to open several schools for residents to more safely shelter during the storm.
Simultaneously, Emergency Management worked on preparation for the response to the hurricane that undoubtedly would leave devastation and people needing help in its wake.
Preparation priorities included putting resources and responders in place to reopen the Marathon and Key West airports (so aircraft could arrive with emergency supplies and personnel) and to make U.S. 1 safe for emergency responders and utility crews to travel.
As Irma got closer to the Keys, a decision was made for the people working in the Emergency Operations Center, located in the BOCC chambers at the Marathon Government Center, to relocate to a safer place.
On Friday morning that safer place was Key West. But within hours the storm track changed drastically and by Friday evening it was safer to go to the other end of the Keys. On Saturday morning, about 125 people from the EOC and emergency responders caravanned to Ocean Reef in North Key Largo. It was a place not only safer to ride out the storm but also a place where the EOC could continue response preparations even while the storm was striking the Keys.
Hurricane Irma Strikes the Keys
As Hurricane Irma approached the Caribbean islands, the storm reached Category 5 status with peak winds of 185 mph. It was the strongest Atlantic basin hurricane on record outside the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Then Irma struck Cuba.
Initially, the official forecast track by the National Hurricane Center kept the eye of Irma over the open waters just north of Cuba – albeit the cone of uncertainty included the possibility that Irma’s center could go over northern Cuba.
And it did. The eye of Irma spent about 24 hours bouncing right along the northern coast of Cuba, causing the hurricane to weaken from Category 5 to Category 3 status.
Once Irma was back over the warm waters of the Florida Straits, the hurricane began to strengthen. On Saturday about 12:15 a.m., the outer bands of the storm began reaching the Keys.
Irma barely regained Category 4 status when it struck the Keys. While still a strong hurricane, Irma did not pack as powerful a punch as it could have had it not gone over Cuba.
The National Hurricane Center reported Irma made landfall at 9:10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, on Cudjoe Key. Strong winds continued throughout the Keys the rest of the day and subsided in the afternoon. The storm also brought storm surge, up to about 9 feet in some areas.
While the Keys were weathering Hurricane Irma, Monroe County’s Emergency Management team was working out of the makeshift Emergency Operations Center set up Saturday morning at Ocean Reef’s employee housing. When the power went out, everyone worked by flashlights and a few lights powered by small generators.
Video conferences using Zoom technology were held from this makeshift EOC with the Keys municipal emergency operation centers and other emergency responders throughout the Keys and the mainland.
Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt led the coordinated preparation effort to have local responders and out-of-county personnel and resources ready to go as soon as the storm passed.
Hurricane Irma: Wake of Destruction
Hurricane Irma left a path of destruction from Ocean Reef in North Key Largo to Key West. Some parts of the island chain fared far better than others, but all suffered some levels of damage.
More than 4,000 homes were destroyed or badly damaged, most in the hardest hit areas between Cudjoe Key and Marathon. More than 1,800 boats were destroyed.
The once beautiful island chain was left a mess. Vegetative and property debris was strewn into the mangroves, across U.S. 1 and local roads, throughout neighborhoods, and into canals and nearshore waters.
Large trees toppled and those that survived lost branches and most of their leaves.
Almost all homes and businesses in the Keys lost power, water, sewer, cell service and Internet service.
The last time the Keys had experienced such a powerful storm was 1960, with Hurricane Donna.