Streets for People / Ian’s Lesson: Key West Infrastructure Needs to Be as Resilient as Its People

Last week Hurricane Ian seemed to surprise some of us. Especially those who weren’t here 17 years ago during Hurricane Wilma when 60 percent of Key West homes took on water. As evidenced by my Facebook feed, many folks were startled as heavy rains, King tides and a 3–5-foot storm surge combined to bring rising water into their yards and homes from Bahama Village, Casa Marina, Midtown to New Town. But the shock was quickly shrugged off as Key Westers realized people were in need and responded promptly by helping their neighbors with water, food, and shelter and just a day after with clean-up, demolition, and rebuilding. 

The generous and resilient spirit of our Key West community is unrivaled and unlikely to ever fail us. It’s in our DNA. It’s embodied by One Human Family. But we need to double down on making our infrastructure and homes just as resilient. Fortunately, the City’s Strategic Plan addresses Sea Level Rise front and center. And the County is even further ahead addressing Climate Change and sea level rise in a big and comprehensive way with multiple plans to achieve resiliency. Rhonda Haag, the County’s Chief Resilience Officer tells people, “We can extend our stay on this island chain. But only if we act!” But to act, we all need to be willing to chip in a little more money to leverage State, Federal and private dollars and get stuff done. Now that most of us have dodged another bullet, it is not the time to deny the problem, push it down the road or selfishly leave it to another day and future generation to fix. 

We’re fortunate that we’ve got an able team of people at the County and City who have already started the hard work of collecting the data, doing the engineering work, and putting plans in place to save our home on these islands. We’re further ahead than most other communities in Florida. But we need to trust the science, pony up some money and political will and get to work. Let’s explore what’s happened, what the plans are and why it’s important we act now. Ian just reminded us we can’t wait.

Facebook Explodes With Surprise 

We rented a car and decamped Key West the Monday morning before the storm to head to Port Charlotte on Florida’s SW coast to be with my in-laws during the hurricane. The eye of Hurricane Ian passed directly over their house on Wednesday. Although the winds were downright scary pounding against the shutters, luckily, they live far enough inland, so we didn’t have to deal with storm surge or rising waters. They had no damage other than downed trees and no electricity for almost 10 days. Everyone is safe. Many of the neighbors in their community didn’t fare so well. I only bring this up to tell you that I didn’t get to witness any of what went down in Key West firsthand as we didn’t get home till Saturday night. I learned it all via Facebook. At least when we could get cell service on our phones. Just a small sample of what I saw online:

Tue Sept 27 8:07 pm JD “Welp, there we go. Just lost power in Midtown.

Tue Sept 27 9:45 pm ED “Oh boy.” 

Tues Sept 27 10:03 pm RW “Key West was sort of blindsided by the ferocity of the storm. Near hurricane winds for six hours.”

Tue Sept 27 11:01 pm JSP “We are evacuating Riviera Dr as the water is up to our door. Be safe everyone.”

Wed Sept 28 12:17 am CM on Laird St. “Our house is flooding. F You iAN. But we are all ok”

Wed Sept 28 12:26 am JL on Staples Ave. “Well. I’m fucked. Could use a hand.”

  • LB “As are we. Flooded.”
  • EW “Flooded”
  • CLM “We’re flooded on Riviera. Bailing has become futile”
  • WT “Flooded on Riviera”
  • MG “Flooded here in Smurf Village

Wed Sept 28 12:44 am KL “Flooding over here at Virginia and Amelia. It’s almost up to the houses. There are at least seven cars that have water all the way up to the windows. Not looking good for some people.”

Facebook and Local Media Explode With Locals Helping Locals

What struck me as soon as the shock wore off that we got more than we bargained for with Hurricane Ian was how quickly Facebook exploded with locals helping locals. Key West is a generous and resilient bunch! Here’s a tiny sampling:

Wed Sept 28 9:55 am CM “Eric, Harper and I are safe. We got some water in the house, but we went to a friend’s house who have power and are higher up. I learned a lot from this storm.”

Wed Sept 28 3:40 pm RM “Please if anyone needs help with anything please let me know. I am ready and able to help.”

  • FS “That is the Key West Way!!”

Thu Sept 29 8:35 am Jack Norris “Recovering from the storm? Walk in clinic for community tomorrow, September 30, 2022. If you cannot pay me, don’t. Details in video. We are a community. We stand as One Human Family.”

Thu Sept 29 10:04 am CM “Big should out to the City workers out here getting the streets cleaned up get back to business.”

Thu Sept 29 1:45 pm JR “This is an open post for anyone to post what they NEED and what you HAVE. Let’s band together and to what this island does best and help each other. Clothes? Sheets? Furniture? How can we help?” 

  • KKB “I’d love to volunteer to help anyway I can. I’ll have 2 kids in town but can help deliver food, organize, etc.
  • LNA “A few sets of queen size sheets. Pillow shams. Dog bed.
    • JS “Can I have the queen sheet? Thank you, JS,”
    • LNA “Yes, I’m in Midtown. I’ll pm my address.
  • …198 comments total

Thu Sept 29 6:36 pm JL “Lord. You people deliver when asked for a hand. Beyond grateful for the myriad of help today. I’m humbled. I couldn’t find everyone to tag, but know I love the hell out of you.”

Sat Oct 1 12:52 pm PJM “A lot of people are looking for a way to help out with the people who were flooded, especially in the Bahamas Village area that was really put underwater and other areas of the island, here’s a way you can help out. FEMA and the state might have forgotten about us but we’re going to take care of each other. Links to Bahama Village & Key West Family Flood Relief GoFundMe page.

Sun Oct 2 7:53 pm JDA “They’ve already started gathering supplies over at Off the Hook in advance of their big collection event on Tuesday to help those displaced by the Flagler fire. They are looking for clothes, towels, etc.”

Mon Oct 3 5:33 JW “If you need a free meal today, tomorrow and Wednesday stop by the Fredrick Douglas Community Center gym 3-6.”

And the Keys Citizen on September 30 highlighted locals helping locals: saying “…Key West City Commissioner Clayton Lopez, who represents Dist. VI wasn’t waiting for help. Thanks to assistance from the SOS Callahan Community Kitchen, the MLK Scholarship TrustGlad Tidings, Key West Housing Authority and Pual Menta of Key West Legal Rum Distillery, Commissioner Clayton Lopez started assisting his constituents with hot food and water at the Douglas Gym. First meal 7 am Thursday where the team prepared enough food for 400 people.” The story goes on to discuss Paul J. Menta’s efforts to help via the GoFundMe page he set up.

Our One Human Family Is As Resilient As Ever 

Here’s how Mayor Teri Johnston put it:

“Key West weather events bring out the best and the worst in our Community.  I am going to focus on the majority of our community who put their needs aside to rush to the aide of those less fortunate. The outpouring of assistance to our Bahama Village Community was heartwarming. 93 homes managed by our Key West Housing Authority suffered significant storm surge impacting many of our most vulnerable residents. Paul Menta, United Way of the Florida Keys and Collier County, the Tom Callahan SOS kitchen and City staff were on site providing resources needed to sustain and recover. Key West Housing Authority Executive Director Randy Sterling and team worked tirelessly coordinating new appliances, mattresses, and repairs to get his residents back into a livable home.  

Homes In New Town, Midtown and Old Town took on first floor storm surge flooding of their homes. Sigsbee and JIATF have reported storm damage. The City deployed our emergency debris removal trucks and damage assessment teams, both on the ground and via drones, while our firefighters battled 5 local fires that gutted another 17 housing units. An emergency damage assessment hotline was set up to gather data for recovery.

My phone rang constantly from generous residents asking where and how they could help. Federal and State elected officials reached out to help.

Yes, One Human Family lives on in Key West.”

So, we know the Key West spirit is strong, but what about our infrastructure?

Resilient Infrastructure: We’ve Got a Plan for That – City of Key West Strategic Plan

Just a few weeks ago we discussed how the City is making great progress on implementing its Strategic Plan (The Mayor’s Strategic Plan is Helping the City Bureaucracy Get Stuff Done, September 16, 2022). Number 2, just after Workforce Housing is addressing Sea Level Rise because residents told the City this was a top priority. I asked Elisa Levy, who led the effort to write and is also tasked with implementing the City’s Strategic Plan what’s happening regarding Sea Level Rise and here’s what she said:

“Major initiatives ongoing and planned for resiliency in Key West:

  1. Long Term Climate Change Plan and Vulnerability Assessment: This is the most impactful measure we could do long term both on nuisance flooding and Sea Level Rise. We have received a grant from Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and have prepared the RFP for the Vulnerability Assessment. We’re just waiting for FDEP to complete their side of the paperwork/approval, and we are ready to go. 

The Vulnerability Assessment will take about 6 months, and that will lead us to a long-term Climate Change Plan. The plan provides us with major CIP (Capital Improvement Program), road elevation, structural elevation, and hardening efforts in order of importance and urgency. It involves much more than that in terms of “green” (natural) and “gray” (industrial) measures we can use to live with the water (move the water through the island more quickly and where we can harden).

  1. Hardening & Utilities: We are making significant improvements in flood zones throughout the islands. If you look back at the video (and memos) from the Utilities Director at the last Commission meeting, you’ll see several specific projects mentioned along with the number of homes that will be helped through these efforts.
  • Roads: We are beginning a Preventative Maintenance program on our roads this fiscal year. I believe the damage from the salt water/flooding plays a significant role in road degradation.”

Resilient Homes: We’ve Got a Plan for That – City of Key West Comprehensive Adaptation and Resilience Implementation Plan

The City’s Sustainability Coordinator Alison Higgins gave an “Adaptation Update: Resources for Residents: Wind, Flood, Energy” presentation to the City Commission on Thursday, October 6. The presentation is chock full of good information for homeowners. Take a look. Better yet, go to the City’s website and check out the video of her presentation by clicking Agenda and Minutes and clicking on the video for Item 3 in Presentations of October 6.

Resilient Infrastructure and Homes: We’ve Got a Plan for That – Monroe County Addresses Climate Change and Sea Level Rise

We did a story this winter (We Can Adapt and Save the Florida Keys from Rising Seas, March 5, 2022) on the absolutely amazing efforts that Monroe County has been embarked on for almost a decade regarding making the Florida Keys more resilient in the face of Climate Change and sea level rise. I say amazing because Monroe County is further along in addressing these issues than any place in Florida and most places in the U.S.A. I asked Rhonda Haag, the County’s Chief Resilience Officer some questions this week and here’s her generous and thoughtful response:

  1. How has the Plan progressed since we last chatted in February? 

    “The County’s Roads Adaptation Plan was finalized and presented to the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners in June 2022. Half of the County’s roads are vulnerable by sea level rise by the year 2045. The estimated price tag to adapt and elevate those roads to mitigate the effects of rising waters to the year 2045 is $1.8 Billion. That does not include road adaptation efforts required in the City of any of the Keys other municipalities, they are now completing their own road adaptation planning efforts. In August 2022 the County submitted 15 grant applications for road elevations to the State under its Resilient Florida program with a price tag of $380 Million. The top 3 of those projects totaled $87 Million and included a 50% match of $43 Million. The County is soon to break ground on its two pilot road elevation programs in Twin Lakes in Key Largo and the Sands neighborhood in Big Pine Key.”

  2. What lessons should our local leaders at the City and County take away from this past week’s experience with Ian? 

    “As catastrophic and tragic as the effects were from Ian in Florida, imagine how even more catastrophic and tragic it could be when future storms hit when the levels of the sea are even higher. The projections from the SE Florida Climate Compact call for up to an additional foot of sea level rise by the year 2045. That means there could be higher levels of storm surge and even stronger wave impacts from storms.  That’s why it’s so important for the City and County to move forward with implementation of their various resilience plans and not wait. Not only can the effects of storms be mitigated, but the daily lives of residents will be enhanced as they will be able to go to and from their homes and businesses without suffering the effects of the rising seas, they are already experiencing on many area roads during the King Tide season.”

  3. What can we as individuals do with our homes to be more resilient in the future?

    “If someone is looking to buy a home, a home located on a higher ground elevation area will be more resilient than one in a low-lying area. Second, if a resident owns a ground level home, it can be elevated to protect against flooding. The County and cities throughout Monroe County are participating in multiple mitigation grant programs to assist homeowners with elevating or reconstructing their homes, including the FEMA flood mitigation grant program.  Also, the Florida Keys Coastal Storm Risk Project is a partnership between the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the County and municipalities and contains plans for potential elevation of more than 4600 ground level homes throughout the Keys at a cost of $2.3 Billion. If funded, this project would provide 65% federal funding of those home elevations, with 35% coming from the homeowners themselves and other local sources. Third, follow the regulations, they exist for a reason. If a resident owns an elevated home, and the ground floor is required to have breakaway walls, don’t fortify those walls. If a storm surge comes through those walls they are meant to break away, allowing the support columns to continue supporting the home above.  If the lower walls don’t break away, the surge and wave action puts stress on the walls and those support columns, potentially causing partial or full collapse of the columns.”

  4. Anything else you’d like to add?  

    “The County and City are well ahead of the rest of the State in planning for sea level rise, and all of the other Keys’ municipalities are undergoing similar resilience planning work. County and Municipal officials have generously helped lay the pathway for this work, supporting it and authorizing staff to complete plans for long term resilience. What’s needed now is implementation of those plans, recognizing the fact that sea levels continue to rise. Implementation is expensive and there aren’t enough grants to fund all of the work. Everyone will need to contribute, including residents and business owners and even our visitors. Also, County and City leaders and officials working together hand in hand with state and federal officials to maximize assistance and resources will be key. Private resilience efforts are just as important. Only then will the Keys be better protected from the effects of climate change, including future hurricanes.”

We Can Adapt Our Infrastructure and Homes to Be As Resilient as the Key West Spirit and Extend Our Stay on This Island Chain. But Only If We Act. Now!

Hurricane Ian has brought home an important lesson that we’re likely to be dealing with similar weather events more frequently from here on out. We are a generous and resilient people, where locals help locals. But we can’t rely on that alone in the face of Climate Change and rising sea levels. We need to make our infrastructure and homes as resilient as our One Human Family spirit. 

We have amazing teams of people at the County and City who are diving into data and best engineering practices and putting in place plans that can extend our time living on these islands. But it is up to us residents, our Key West business community and our City and County Commissioners to find the will to figure out how we raise billions of dollars over the next 25 years to make these plans a reality and thereby extend our stay in Paradise.

Links to Resources

[livemarket market_name="KONK Life LiveMarket" limit=3 category=“” show_signup=0 show_more=0]