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On an unseasonably cool day in the Florida Keys, a manatee drifted through a canal, stopping occasionally to graze on an algae-slimed recreational vehicle that just barely crested the water’s surface.
That sunken RV is just one of 16 swept from the adjacent streets by Hurricane Irma in September. This 18-foot deep canal — filled with more wrecked homes than bobbing boats — is just one of hundreds in the island chain still clogged with storm trash.
But a canal clean-up in the Keys could finally be near.
Monroe County says it is close to reaching an agreement to start clearing canals, one of the final steps in picking up the massive amount of trash left behind by Irma. On land alone, more than 2.3 million cubic yards of waste have been removed, including over 19,000 large appliances. But four months later, it’s still unclear how much remains in the canals, some of which still look like the hurricane hit yesterday.
Many visitors may not even notice the problem. The main highway is no longer lined with mountains of garbage, salt-soaked cars and fridges full of stinking, rotten food. Instead, bright red signs warning against illegal dumping dot the median. But for many residents along the canals, who picked up their yards and even gutted and repaired houses while junk rots in the waterways behind their homes, the clogged canals remain an ongoing frustration.
Some have even tried to take on the massive cleanup themselves — at least small parts of it .
Paula Rybacki, who moved a charming conch-style cottage from Key West to Big Pine Key only to lose it in Irma, spends most morning fishing small chunks of debris from her canal with a rake.
“If you see any blue pieces in here, that’s my house,” she said. “Maybe even that board right there.”
Her home on Avenue F borders what has come to be known as the most debris-choked canal on Big Pine. The waterway is full of gas tanks, paint cans, chunks of wood and even four fuel tanks from an F-14 aircraft, which the neighbors have taken to calling “Irma bombs.”
Monroe County’s Sustainability Program Manager Rhonda Haag said it has taken months to negotiate with FEMA and Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection for help.
Neither agency has ever done such work, or paid for it, after previous hurricanes. After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, for instance, debris was left to rot in the canals for more than a decade. But Irma’s debris made that look like a drop in the bucket in some stretches of the Keys.
“This was a much bigger impact, much more debris in the canals and much more widespread,” Haag said.
This time around, FEMA agreed to pay to clean the canals enough for navigational purposes. At first, the agency wanted to scoop out stuff in just the top six feet of water — enough depth for most small boat to pass through. But that would just scrape the surface of many of the county’s canals, some of which go down 40 feet. After months of talks, Haag said FEMA has agreed to go down to a depth of 15 feet.
The bright side for Keys residents: Monroe County won’t be picking up the tab, which could end up in the tens of millions.
The county, already burdened with a costly cleanup on land that surpassed $20 million in December alone, doesn’t have enough money to handle its waterways, even with FEMA promising reimbursement. So the state DEP agreed to step in and pay upfront to clean the debris and muck from the county’s 330 canals.
What makes the whole thing even worse for residents? Just before Irma, the county spent big money on a canal cleanup pilot project: $7 million to scrape truckloads of muck and Wilma debris from its canals and install “air curtains,” plastic pipes that form a barrier of bubbles to keep seaweed out. About $5 million of those projects were on Big Pine alone, the island that Irma hit hardest.
Irma undid everything, and rebuilding won’t be the same. The cost of installing and maintaining the air curtains was supposed to be spread out among everyone who lived along the canals, but that calculation looks different when some of those homes were swept off the island.
“Where we had ten residences before to split the cost up, now we have maybe three and they’re heavily impacted,” Haag said. “We want to be considerate. We don’t know who’s going to rebuild.”
The monthslong delay does have a silver lining, Haag said. One of the main issues was where to store the truckloads of soggy debris. With free space at a premium on the island chain, this was already a big issue for terrestrial debris collection. Now that most of it is done, the lots have room for canal trash.
Meanwhile, residents have tried to do what they can. Most of the residents in Rybacki’s decimated Big Pine neighborhood haven’t returned, or they’re living elsewhere while they rebuild, so she takes all the cleanup help she can get. When two strangers from Chicago posted on a Facebook page that they were willing to pitch in, Rybacki took them up on their offer.
Cassie Meredith and Caryn Walt took a week off from work and flew to the Keys, where they met up with Rybacki for the first time when they started working early Thursday morning. The women hauled knives, tiles, plates and chunks of wall from the canal, bundled it into black bags and dragged them to the side of the street.
By noon, the pile of trash was growing, but the canal didn’t look any cleaner.
“It feels like it didn’t even make a dent,” Meredith said.
Rybacki, however, takes the long view.
“We’ll rebuild and the canals will be more beautiful than ever,” she said. “Mother nature will clean the oceans, but we need to help her.”
More formal cleanups, with sponsors and foundations behind them, are popping up too. This coming Saturday, dozens of volunteers in town for the Jose Wejebe Spanish Fly Memorial Foundation annual fundraiser will dedicate a day to cleaning up the waters near the historic marina on Big Pine Key.
“You can’t rely on the county or local government in general to do this kind of thing,” said Krissy Wejebe, the daughter of the foundation’s namesake, a famed Keys fishing guide who died in a 2012 plane crash. “It’s really important that we take action. It kinda sparks something in people when you’re a part of the solution.”
As canal cleanup continues — both professionally and by volunteers — workers are likely to find remnants of their neighbors’ live, including stuff they might like to get back.
When she evacuated, Rybacki left her tandem, yellow, glass-bottomed kayak between her home and the shed. When she returned, the kayak, like her home, had vanished. She posted to a Keys lost-and-found Facebook group without much hope that anyone would respond. A few weeks later, a woman contacted her and had her identify three specific knots in the rope attached to the boat.
“Then she told me, ‘I have a very happy Irma story for you,’” Rybacki said.
Her kayak was in perfect shape, despite the nine mile journey it took to Cudjoe Key.
“I think she even pressure washed it for me,” she said.