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Lower Keys Residents Frustrated With Remaining Hurricane Debris

Nancy Klingener
The state has agreed to make another pass at picking up debris on U.S. 1 in the Keys - though that will not include vehicles or mobile homes.

More than two million cubic yards of debris has been hauled out of the Florida Keys since Hurricane Irma. But many residents of the Lower Keys say they are still waiting and they are tired of living in a trash-lined landscape.

"I see no trucks, no debris trucks, no anything," said Lenore Baker of Big Pine Key.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Many residents of Big Pine Key are frustrated with the slow pace of debris removal on the island.

Baker’s home survived the storm,  but she says just living in the debris-laden landscape has been hard. And it’s much harder for her neighbors who lost their homes.

"When you’re living in a tent in your yard and there is your life around you, 24-7, and you look at that and you’re digging through it and putting the stuff that you can’t save on the side of the road — get it away," she said.

Monroe County officials say they expect the cleanup from the storm to take four to five months — which could mean January or even February before all the debris is gone.

Tom Ryan also lives on Big Pine — currently in a 37-foot trailer in front of his house, which he is sharing with his husband and three dogs.

"Today’s 80 days after the hurricane hit. And to see the debris that’s still not picked up in Big Pine you would think the hurricane hit a week ago," he said. "All you have to do is drive into Big Pine and the smell — it's devastating."

Ryan and Baker were among dozens of Lower Keys residents who attended a Monroe County Commission meeting this week to voice their frustration.

Ryan says he sees the long waits for debris pick-up as the result of poor planning on the county's part. Lots of attention is given to evacuating the Keys before a storm, but Ryan said more attention should have been paid to how to clean up afterwards.

"Everybody living here knew we'd be hit by a big one eventually, and it came," he said. "The mound in front of my house is still seven feet tall and probably 15 or 20 feet wide. They never picked up any of the limbs and the branches. So they're 10, 15 feet high, all up and down the street. This block is one street long. There's only seven houses on it. It's like we're not a priority."

County officials said the county — and it's debris-hauling contractor — were simply overwhelmed by the demand for equipment and labor after Hurricane Irma caused damage and created debris across much of the state.

After Irma, "we need[ed] 8,500 trucks throughout the state. There's only 3,500 trucks throughout the state and they're being deployed wherever we can," said County Administrator Roman Gastesi.

The county received one piece of good news this week. The state has agreed to make one more pass along U.S. 1 in the Keys, picking up debris that has been piled along the once-scenic Overseas Highway.