skip to content
Fallen tree at National Key Deer Refuge. Photo by USFWS.

‘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, FloridaHurricane 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.

The sign at the refuge complex hangs perilously.
Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex after Hurricane Irma. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

“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.

He sent one crew of sawyers from the St. Marks NWR to clear trees from two refuge-owned properties and the other crew, from the North Mississippi Refuges Complex, to clean up another home.

“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.”

A yellow backhoe moves debris into a dumptruck.
Jonathan Young dumps Hurricane Irma debris into Jimmy Berry’s truck at the Key Deer NWR. The men work at the North Mississippi Refuge Complex. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

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.

A small brown deer next to some denuded vegetation.
This Key deer was wandering alongside a damaged home owned by National Key Deer Refuge after Hurricane Irma. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

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.”

Two men in Army fatigues hand a case of supplies to a resident.
The Florida National Guard dispenses water and food to Keys residents from the National Key Deer Refuge. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

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, 404 679-4028

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

Contact Us:

Looking for a media contact? Reach out to a regional spokesperson.

Share this page

Tweet this page on Twitter or follow @USFWSsoutheast

Share this page on Facebook or follow USFWSsoutheast.


Share this page on LinkedIn