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The Florida Keys Hurricane Challenge Is To Get Everyone Out On Time

The Florida Keys are hardly the only place in the U.S. that's vulnerable to hurricanes. That's true along any coastline.

But the thing about the Keys is that, as an island chain, the whole county is a coastline. There is no inland.

"Much of the Florida Keys is only about 5 feet above sea level," said Martin Senterfitt, Monroe County's director of emergency management. The county makes the decisions about when to evacuate the island chain.

rita_05_turnpike_sign.jpg
Credit Miami Herald
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Miami Herald
A sign on Florida's Turnpike alerts drivers that Keys residents and tourists are evacuating, before Hurricane Rita in 2005.

When a storm threatening the Keys is projected to be Category 3 or above, the policy is mandatory evacuation. The county does not open shelters in those cases.

That's where the geography of the island chain makes the decisions especially tricky. The inhabited Keys are 120 miles long, with only one road — the Overseas Highway — connecting them.

"The big challenge we face for hurricane evacuation of the Florida Keys is that it takes 36 to 48 hours for us to move everybody out of harm's way," Senterfitt said.

That means Senterfitt and his team have to make the call before they know for sure whether the storm will actually hit the Keys, or at what intensity.

"Storms change," he said. "They move, they turn."

The National Weather Service office in Key West tries to provide "not just what is the most likely outcome, but also what we call a plausible worst case," said Jon Rizzo, NWS Key West's warning coordination meteorologist.

That means the county may issue an evacuation order with only a 30 to 40 percent probability of a strong storm hitting the Keys.

"We can't wait for those probabilities to go up," Senterfitt said, "because then we run out of time for evacuation."

Beyond the challenge of deciding when to call for an evacuation, there's the challenge of persuading people to heed the evacuation order. Some people don't have the money to leave. Others have left before — and wound up in the direct path of the storm. 

"We're definitely planning on people staying," said Key West Mayor Craig Cates. "Because a lot of people aren't going to leave."

Key West is the largest population center in the Keys — and it's at the end of the road, the farthest from the mainland.

"The difficult part is, our first responders, to send them out in the middle of a hurricane because somebody is doing something — well, I should say stupid — and then they expect somebody to come and save them and risk somebody's life doing that," Cates said.

And even for those who make it through a storm, conditions afterwards can range from unpleasant to downright dangerous, especially if a section of the Overseas Highway or the water pipe that runs underneath it gets washed out.

"No air conditioning. No power. Perhaps no running water," Senterfitt said. "It starts becoming a very stark contrast to the quality of life that we live in a normal day here in the Florida Keys."

People who have been in the Keys awhile, especially those who went through the busy storm years of 2004 and 2005, consider themselves hurricane veterans. Hurricane Georges in 1998 knocked out power for weeks in some areas. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma swamped the island chain, causing millions in damage to homes, businesses and cars.

"But when we go into a Category 3, 4 and 5 storm, much like what last hit the Keys in 1960, Hurricane Donna, those become catastrophic," Senterfitt said. "They destroy everything in front of them. So it's trying to get people to understand, though you may have been through Wilma, though you may have been through Georges, it can get much, much worse."

Rizzo said he also keeps in mind that a lot of Keys residents have never been through a storm.

"What happens is that some of your population leaves the coast. And you lose that life experience," he said. "And new folks come in, years later. And so it sometimes seems like you're starting over again — not unlike a school."