‘The Keys are not what you left’: Officials warn those returning to be self-sufficient

Authorities will soon start readmitting residents everywhere in the Florida Keys but warned Saturday afternoon that resources remain spotty and that the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Irma will take weeks, if not months.

Water, electricity and sewage are intermittent at best, Monroe County Mayor George Nugent told reporters in a press conference in Marathon. Homes might not be habitable. If residents can afford to do so, he added, they should consider going back to the mainland.

“The Keys are not what you left several days ago when you evacuated,” he said.

But the warning is unlikely to deter the anxious, angry and impatient still waiting on the roads to go back to their homes and assess the damage Irma wrought. In the last few days, many have begged officers stationed at a checkpoint in the middle of the Overseas Highway to let them through without success.

On Saturday morning, county administrator Roman Gastesi said residents of the Middle Keys are now allowed to return home, though residents below the Seven Mile Bridge will have to wait till 7:30 a.m. Sunday to return. The Keys remain closed to tourists.

When Keys residents return, officials said, they should be as self-sufficient as possible.

“Have all your supplies,” Gastesi said at the press conference, adding items like medication and bug spray in addition to water and food. “Supplies are very limited.”

Tents and campers will likely start popping up around the islands as people settle in to rebuild their homes, he added, and some businesses have started reopening. Many retailers, however, are running on limited hours.

“We had a Publix open till 5 yesterday. I never thought I’d be so happy about that.”

“We’ve been very lucky: 12 years since Wilma,” he added. “This is the big one that we’ve been practicing for.”

A curfew has been issued in the Upper Keys from 10 p.m. to sunrise, with a curfew everywhere else in the Keys starting at dusk, said Marty Senterfitt, the county’s director of emergency management. Four shelters remain open in the Keys and a boil-water alert has also been issued throughout the islands.

“Whatever you do, do not drink the water,” Senterfitt reminded. It’s “only for sanitation purposes.”

Senterfitt added that Fishermens’ Community Hospital, which sustained some structural damage, has brought in a mobile hospital to service those coming back to the Middle Keys. Monroe County hopes to reopen county offices, constitutional offices and courts by Sept. 25, he added.

Those who can should try and volunteer, with information available at keysrecovery.org, he added. “Be prepared to be part of the solution.”