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Keys Start Assessing Irma Response — And Planning For The Next one

Charles Trainor Jr.
Miami Herald
Hurricane Irma tossed a boat onto the Overseas Highway.

Before Sept. 10, the last Category 4 storm to cross the Florida Keys was Donna in 1960 — 57 years ago.

"A community loses its institutional knowledge over that time," said Martin Senterfitt, Monroe County director of emergency management. "And we start replacing it with knowledge of Category 1s and tropical storms and we start forgetting just how bad a storm can be."

Senterfitt, and everybody else in the Keys, now has direct experience of how a major hurricane can impact the low-lying island chain. Irma destroyed hundreds of homes and caused major damage to thousands more.

Maximum sustained winds are estimated at 130 mph in the northeast quadrant of the eyewall. The eye of the storm crossed Cudjoe Key. The Lower Keys were hardest hit, but the storm caused severe damage all along the island chain.

Without experience, storm planning and training exercises are conceptual, Senterfitt said.

Now, "we know what 6 feet of water through neighborhoods looks like. We know what 130-mile-an-hour winds look like," Senterfitt said. "So we have this opportunity, this hard-fought, hard-won lesson that we can now build on to make ourselves safer as a community."

Credit Al Diaz / Miami Herald
Irma destroyed hundreds of homes in the Keys, including many at the Seabreeze Trailer Park.

On Thursday, the county convened the first in a series of meetings to assess the response to Irma, from the first warnings to the decisions on when to let people back into the Keys.

Residents of the Lower Keys and Key West had to wait a week before they could return. Many were frustrated that they were not allowed back sooner to take care of their property and limit water damage.

Communication within the Keys was a major problem in the days after the storm, when the Internet was not available.

Senterfitt said preparing a better, satellite-based communication system is a top priority before the next hurricane season starts June 1.

Another major need, which won't be met so quickly, is providing a county emergency operations center that can withstand a Category 5 hurricane. The county's current EOC, at the Marathon Government Center, can only handle a Category 2, Senterfitt said. That's why the county emergency managers left there for the Ocean Reef Club, right before the storm hit.