‘Lots of new help here,’ as recovery picks up and residents begin returning
Food, water, generators and hope being trucked into the Keys
Big Pine Key, Florida – Hurricane Irma hammered the Florida Keys a week ago Sunday and the recovery has been a whirl of progress and promise.
Armies of police, fire, utility and emergency workers swarm the 120-mile long chain of islands restoring order and power. Armadas of 18-wheelers, front-end loaders and dump trucks supply food, water, generators and hope. Even Mother Nature, who unleashed 180 mph winds on the Lower Keys – crippling this still-hobbled island, home to the National Key Deer Refuge – has kept additional rains at bay.
The refuge took a major blow from Irma with miles of trees downed or denuded, roads blocked, equipment trashed and numerous buildings and employees’ homes damaged. Recovery, though, has been swift as the 50-person response team hailing from all corners of the Southeast clears roads, inspects homes, cuts trees and supplies generators.
“It’s all gone very, very smoothly,” said Sami Gray, the incident commander in charge of the Service’s Florida recovery work. “You always encounter setbacks. Nothing ever works as planned, so you just deal with it.”
Gray, a 12-year veteran of natural disasters, knows firsthand that no two recovery efforts are the same. Each throws logistical or tactical curveballs at the best-laid plans. To wit: refuge and recovery staff field frantic calls about the fate of the beloved Key deer, an endangered species that nonchalantly roams Big Pine and neighboring Keys.
And then there’s Tropical Storm Lee, churning in the mid-Atlantic and heading, perhaps, this way.
State officials allowed residents of the Middle Keys to return home Saturday and everybody else, including many iconoclastic Key Westers, can return Sunday. Full-bore recovery mixed with distraught residents – most will be sobered by the level of destruction – promises an interesting, if not combustible, mix.
“It’ll be scary, bro’,” said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Swanbeck, in charge of a Florida National Guard unit working from the Service’s visitor center to provide food and water to Keys residents. “Imagine when all those people come back without power, water or infrastructure.”
“Things are looking good”
Saturday, though, unfurled smoothly. Gray and top staff met at 7 a.m. at the refuge’s office (and temporary bunkhouse) to update Atlanta officials and plan the day’s attack. An hour later, Jon Wallace (operations) and Tyler Henderson (safety) briefed the sawyers, truck drivers, law officers and backhoe operators at the Nut Farm, a former coconut plantation turned into a staging area for the heavy equipment.
“There’s a lot of new faces here today to help us out with our little endeavor,” Wallace said.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces and shuffling around, but we’re making progress,” said Wallace, a deputy regional fire coordinator who lives outside Atlanta. “Things are looking good.”
Henderson reminded all workers to take 15-20 minute breaks every hour, avoid touching poisonwood trees and keep an eye out for distracted drivers ogling Irma’s handiwork.
“We’re not out here trying to set any records,” said Henderson, a safety specialist. “Go slow. Be safe. Be deliberate. And keep an eye out for everybody.”
The thermometer topped 90 degrees and the humidity made it feel 100-plus, especially for the men (and one woman) wearing protective gear and wielding chainsaws and tree trimmers.
“It’s extremely hot, but the heat’s been manageable,” said Jeff Van Vrancken, an aquatic ecologist in the Panama City office who doubles as a sawyer. “I stay hydrated. I drink a lot of water and Gatorade. I was expecting worse. This isn’t as bad as Katrina where I slept in a tent for six weeks. The difficulty here, though, is that all the electric lines are down.”
Poisonwood and pretty deer
There are other challenges. Nasty rashes – much worse than poison ivy – from cut poisonwood trees started cropping up. Solution holes, where eroded limestone has turned into deep cavities in the ground, threatened to break legs or twist ankles. A nasty mixture of oil, gas, herbicides and old batteries stored at the Nut Farm and inundated by Irma’s storm surge needed to be hauled off by a hazmat team.
And then there’s the Key deer. Refuge staffers have received a handful of calls about dead deer in need of burial or live deer in need of water, food or shelter. Neither request, though, is out of the ordinary. Cars and trucks alone kill about 135 deer annually. Dan Clark, the refuge manager, advises concerned citizens to leave the deer alone.
Gray and her staff help the community as well. They’ve cleared county roads and undertaken “wellness checks” on local residents. They donated, temporarily, the refuge’s brand new visitor center on U.S. 1 to the national guard to set up a water and food distribution point. They also hooked up two generators to power much-needed air conditioning so the guardsmen can sleep comfortably. In exchange, the guard gives the Service all the water, ice and MREs needed to satisfy its own army of workers.
“They’ve been awesome,” said Sgt. Swanbeck, maneuvering a pallet of Pringles from truck to forklift to distribution area. “We’ve been working hand-in-hand helping folks out. It’s good to give back to the community. It’s been a great experience.”
Earlier, along Key Deer Blvd., a man and woman pulled alongside a Fish and Wildlife Service truck. The couple, storm survivors looking a little shell-shocked, had something to say.
“Thanks for being here brother,” the driver said. “Thanks very much.”
Daniel Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
firstname.lastname@example.org, 404 679-4028
- Florida Keys
- Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex
- Hurricane Irma
- Key Deer
- North Mississippi National Wildlife Refuges Complex
- Panama City Ecological Services Field Office
- St Marks National Wildlife Refuge
- Vero Beach Ecological Services Field Office
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