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Florida County Officials Take Heat over Irma Response

Issues such as housing, post-storm communication with the public and debris removal dominated a meeting that at moments turned emotional.

(TNS) — Re-entry after a Category 4 disaster like Hurricane Irma can affect public safety in the form of homes being looted and also hinder efforts to restore utilities, said Monroe County Emergency Management Director Marty Senterfitt.

Senterfitt stood his ground on the mandatory evacuation order that was in place before the Sept. 10 Category 4 storm hammered Big Pine Key and other spots in the Florida Keys. Those who survived unscathed were lucky, he suggested.

"That's like putting a gun to your head and when you win you say, 'I'm smart,' " Senterfitt told a crowd of more than 100 Lower Keys residents at a two-hour meeting Monday night at Keys Community Church.

"No, you're not. You shouldn't be playing the game," he said. "You need to listen to what we're telling you."

A woman in the back said in 50 years on Big Pine, Irma marked the first time she fled the Keys pre-storm.

"I promise I won't do that again," said the woman, who wouldn't give her name to a reporter.

Senterfitt's comments came after the woman's show of defiance.

Issues such as housing, post-storm communication with the public and debris removal dominated a meeting that at moments turned emotional.

When County Administrator Roman Gastesi said of debris removal, which remains an issue in the Lower Keys, "It's more frustrating to us than it is to you," the crowd roared back, "No."

The meeting was among several the county held to elicit feedback about the storm and officials' response. The goal, officials said, is to form a Monroe County emergency reserve corps of sorts, perhaps 50 to 100 people who, like in the days of all-volunteer fire departments, could step up when dangerous storms arise and help officials steer the response.

Asked what they liked about the post-Irma response, several people quickly mentioned faith-based groups who showed up to clear debris and help residents dig out from the hurricane's wrath.

"People forget their differences and our amazing community works together," said Giancarlo Espinosa.

Plenty of those attending had criticism for the county, particularly when it comes to debris removal.

"Why is the hardest-hit area the last one to get picked up?" asked Tommy Ryan. "Six months of the year is hurricane season. You can't tell me you weren't prepared."

Senterfitt said finding sites to store both land and marine debris proved difficult in the land-strapped Florida Keys. Sites reserved for marine debris were quickly filled up with vegetation, he said.

"We're not happy about it," Senterfitt said. "They really thought they had a good plan in place, whoever wrote the plan the last time. We want to do better next time."

Lenore Baker told officials that next time bring in rolling dumpsters and put them in every neighborhood so people can dispose of debris near home.

"Instead of taking their trucks and going to the edge of the wetlands and doing it," Baker said. "Whoever's dumped that stuff should be prosecuted." She said paint, Styrofoam and insulation materials have been illegally dumped.

The last input session for residents is Jan. 22 at Sugarloaf Fire Station, 17175 Overseas Highway, Sugarloaf Key. It goes from 6 to 8 p.m.

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen


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