Hurricane Irma: The Immediate Response

In the late afternoon of Sept. 10, just hours after the eye had passed the Florida Keys and conditions were safe enough to go outside, Monroe County Emergency Management put into action all its planning and preparation to lead the Keys’ coordinated response to Hurricane Irma.

One priority was re-opening Key West International and Florida Keys Marathon International airports so military and other aircraft could land with emergency supplies and personnel. Emergency responders gathered at the airports on the evening of Sept. 10 to start clearing the runways of tons and tons of debris.  By the next morning both airports were ready to receive emergency aid. By the evening of Sept. 11, the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps and Army National Guard were stationed on site to help with the response.

The Alaska National Guard was the first military aircraft to arrive.  They positioned themselves in Louisiana and were able to fly around the storm to land as soon as the runway in Marathon was clear.

Another priority was inspecting all 41 bridges along U.S. 1, as well as clearing the highway of debris and making several quick repairs to washed out roadway to make the Keys’ only main road safe for search and rescue crews, other emergency responders and utility workers. Monroe County’s public works, Fire Rescue and others began the effort on Sunday evening. The Florida Department of Transportation had crews ready to go the morning of Sept. 11.

At daybreak Sept. 11, Monroe County Emergency Management relocated its Emergency Operations Center back to the Marathon Government Center. Most communications (cell phone and broadband Internet) was knocked out and work began immediately began to restore service.

By 10 a.m., search and rescue missions began, with crews going door to door to look for any survivors needing help. It required getting through many local roads that were impassable due to debris. Over six days about 15,000 homes were searched.

Food, water and temporary medical facilities began to arrive Sept. 11 to help the survivors who did not evacuate. Food and distribution sites were set up throughout the County. The County coordinated with the American Red Cross to set up and operate shelters at local schools for those whose homes were destroyed or too damaged to live in.

Monroe County Fire Rescue answered medical calls, assisted with search and rescue, put out fires and helped clear debris during the initial days of the response.

Florida Keys Electric Coop, Keys Energy Services and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority had

local and out-of-county crews ready to mobilize as soon as the storm passed and worked tirelessly to restore water, power and sewer services as quickly as possible.

Monroe County’s Sheriff Office worked alpha/bravo shifts and got help from law enforcement teams from around the country to prevent looting, answer calls, enforce the curfew and man checkpoints.

Much work was done as quickly as possible to make it safe and secure for residents who had evacuated to be able to return to the Keys to begin their own recovery.

Emergency Management worked with federal, state and local partners on the response. Gov. Rick Scott, U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo, state Representative Holly Raschein, FEMA Director Brock Long and other elected officials and agency leaders came to the Emergency Operations Center in Marathon to lend their support.

FEMA set up several Disaster Recovery Centers throughout the Keys, and sent crews door to door to help people with individual assistance.

Public information created a website, created and distributed flyers, provided several news releases each day to keep up with the evolving response information, posted regularly on social media sites and worked with the media to help get information out to the community.

Non-profit and religious-based organizations, with a small army of volunteers, helped provide meals, distribute donated goods and supplies, clear debris from people’s houses and deliver smiles and hugs to the survivors.

Everyone who worked on the response tried to make the lives of the hurricane survivors better.