Drone video shows how one business on Islamorada is trying to clean up and rebuild after hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys over the weekend. Rodney White, Michael Zamora/The Register
Alex Rivero, 53, checks out storm damage in the Long Key Outdoor Resorts neighborhood following the passage of Hurricane Irma.(Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY)
KEY LARGO, Fla. — Hurricane Harvey's devastation of Texas may have helped save lives on the Florida Keys when Irma hit because tens of thousands of people mobilized for evacuation far more quickly than expected.
Instead of a last-minute crush to leave the low-lying Keys and southeastern Florida, many residents gassed up and hit the road days before Irma first made landfall, participating in one of the largest — and possibly the most successful — mass evacuations in state history.
Experts credit the news coverage of Harvey as it inundated Texas, along with widespread access to computer models that showed where the storm might hit and the potential storm surge. A coordinated local-state-federal message reinforced the danger, spread widely by the media.
"People were preparing even before any indication they were going to get hit," said Craig Fugate, the former FEMA director and a Florida native. "We saw preparedness far outside the normal. People were preparing four, five, six days out."
Gov. Rick Scott personally appealed to Keys residents to leave, an effort that prompted thousands of extra people to evacuate, Monroe County officials said. Irma slammed ashore on the Keys, destroying thousands of trailers and RVs and leaving many homes uninhabitable.
The early evacuations and preparations led to water and gas shortages across Florida days before the skies began to darken, but authorities said the inconvenience was well worth it: As of Wednesday afternoon searchers had found no casualties trapped in buildings or trailers in storm-hit areas of the Keys.
Scott, who toured the Florida Keys by air, saw the damage caused by 130-mph winds. “There were entire trailer parks that were just gone,” he said. “But people got out. We can rebuild.”
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Overall, county officials reported eight deaths related to Irma, although the exact causes were not released. Another 40 people were injured during the storm.
The evacuation may have saved lives, but it also frustrated residents, many of whom were angry that reporters were getting access to neighborhoods before they did. Tempers flared Monday when Keys residents, seeing clear skies, began agitating to return.
But authorities barred virtually all access until Tuesday morning as they cleared debris that included power lines, trees and sand blocking the road, which itself was shredded in places by the storm’s force, peeled up like a sticker.
There was also no power and no gas along the more-than 100-mile-long road to Key West. At one Key West gas station, the owner doled out gas from a plastic barrel, a gun on his hip.
The governor said he understood the frustration of returning residents fighting the same traffic congestion as when they left but pointed out it meant large volumes of people heeded evacuation orders: “They knew this was dangerous.”
Unlike many communities, the Florida Keys have only one road in and out — the snaking, mostly two-lane U.S. Highway 1, which has a 55-mph speed limit for most of its length.
Water and sand surround this home on the Florida Keys after the passage of Hurricane Irma. (Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY)
Evacuating as many of the approximately 25,000 Keys residents — plus tourists — as possible required plenty of advance warning and a little bit of luck to help ensure there were no road-blocking crashes as thousands of cars, RVs and trucks (many towing boats) rolled north.
It’s unclear just how many people refused to leave the Keys when ordered, but many who stayed said they believed the storm wouldn’t be as bad as predicted.
When the order to leave came, Alex Rivero, 53, decided to stay on the island he has called home for nine years: “I came here to visit my mom and found paradise.”
Rivero, who rode out the storm in a concrete house on stilts on Long Key, one of the hardest-hit areas, said he was thankful the building was so secure. The community in which he lives is a mix of trailers and concrete homes. By and large, those concrete homes show no damage. The trailers, however, suffered, with roofs blown off and doors stove in by the water that rushed across the island.
“Look at how high that is,” Rivero said, pointing at the waist-high line of sea grass embedded in the chain-link fence separating Long Key Outdoor Resorts from U.S. 1. The storm surge carried tons of white sand hundreds of yards from the ocean’s edge across the road and into the neighborhood, a powerful force that ripped away stairs and tumbled away anything not bolted down. “We got hit hard.”
Farther south in the Keys, Cody Cowpland, 22, rode out the storm in the concrete home his father built. Monroe County officials have been tightening their building codes for years, most recently in 2015, and credit those codes with ensuring new construction can better survive storms.
Cowpland said he and 11 other people huddled in their house, along with three dogs and a cat. They watched the front of the storm pass and then ventured outside as the eye moved over. All those stories about being dead calm and clear? “Totally wasn’t like that. Blew my glasses off my face. Twice,” Cowpland said.
A capsized sailboat boat sits in the water off Key West following the passage of Hurricane Irma. (Via OlyDrop) (Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY)
Longtime Hurricane forecaster Phil Klotzbach said things could have been much worse on Key West, if not for last-minute changes to the storm track and those improved building codes. Klotzbach, a research scientist in atmospheric science at Colorado State University, said the low death toll is a credit to both authorities and to evacuees.
“I know there were people that got stuck on the roads in Miami-Dade County and gas issues, but all in all, I didn't hear horror stories about people being trapped on the roads when the storm came ashore,” he said. “I certainly think that Harvey, as well as the damage that Irma had done in the Caribbean, caused people to take this storm very seriously.”
Fugate said he’ll reserve final judgement for the after-action reviews, which include interviews with evacuees and those who remained. And he cautioned about complacency. People might get accustomed to having such a long warning period of a storm, but Hurricane Andrew went from virtually nothing to a powerful storm in just a few days.
“We know people tend to look at these storms as singular events,” he said. “And we still saw people doing things that were counterproductive.”