MIAMI — Thousands of Florida Keys homes might be destroyed. There’s no power, phone service or safe drinking water. Thousands might have to be evacuated. And the island chain’s economy is at risk.
The Conch Republic is reeling more than anywhere else in Florida after Hurricane Irma. And it could get worse.
“Five or six days without electricity, without water and without fuel to get out. It’s going to start to get a little hairy,” said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who toured the Keys after the storm made landfall Sunday in the Lower Keys. “You’re really alone down there.”
With September mortgage payments due in days, Rubio and his Democratic counterpart, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, say lenders should consider giving homeowners a break on their monthly payment now that lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are offering storm survivors mortgage relief for as long as a year.
“I will urge the Department of Housing and Urban Development that they work out not only federally financed mortgages but lean on the banking industry to have some forgiveness or suspension of monthly mortgage payments for a period of time to allow people to adjust back to their normal situation so they can pay their mortgages,” Nelson said.
Both Nelson, Rubio and the congressman who represents the area, Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, also back tax breaks for storm survivors and small business assistance. Curbelo, who toured the Keys with Nelson and Rubio on Monday, said Key West wasn’t as badly damaged as feared. But the Lower Keys were badly damaged.
“The big pain here is going to be financial in nature,” Curbelo said. “All these restaurant workers and hotel employees are going to be out of work for at least a week. That’s where we’re going to feel the greatest pain from the storm.”
Rubio said he wondered about “the long-term impact, like the bait shop down there that goes two months without revenue. Can they survive? Will they be here even when the Keys reopen? So we have to think of that aspect of it. Temporary housing. Everything in between. I think restoring power and water to the Lower Keys is going to be a lot harder than people realize because of the unique nature of the damage.”
So far, Upper and some Middle Keys residents in the 110-mile chain of islands have been allowed to return. But many residents haven’t been readmitted, and they’re starting to chafe with government officials who told them they needed to evacuate before the storm, only to deny them the right to return home.
“I have friends that need help. I have supplies for them,” Key Largo resident Tony Gibus told The Miami Herald on Monday. “We’re capable people in the Keys, we don’t need our hands held. … We’re not tourists.”
Making matters more tense was a Defense Department press release on Monday that said 10,000 residents who stayed behind might have to evacuate now because the Lower Keys are almost uninhabitable. It has since been removed from the DoD website, but the statement struck a nerve with some residents of the Keys, where suspicion of federal land grabs runs deep.
Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi, who has one of the few working cellphones in the Keys, told POLITICO Florida that the DoD statement surprised him. There are no plans to evacuate more people, he said.
“No surprise here,” Gastesi said, comparing the department’s evacuation estimate to the stuff of conspiracies. “The last time I checked, the Flat Earth Society had 67,000 members. Apparently, one of them works at DoD.”
Rubio said the DoD statement was akin to disturbing a “hornet’s nest” in the Keys.
A Defense Department spokeswoman said the “numbers provided were a planning estimate based on the evolving disaster situation. The Department of Defense continues to support FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Specifically, the Department is postured to provide humanitarian assistance, search and recovery, evacuation, and logistics support. Response operations are fluid, and we will provide updates as available.”
Monroe County officials, however, are also pushing back against the Federal Emergency Management Agency for publicly stating that as much as 25 percent of the housing stock in the Keys had been destroyed.
FEMA later backed away from those estimates, a New York Times reporter tweeted Tuesday night quoting FEMA spokesperson Mary Hudak, who said “those were early estimates used for planning. I don’t know that we can refute them but I don’t know that we can confirm.”
Regardless of the housing stock destroyed, Nelson said he expects the Keys will spring back.
“The Keys are conchs,” Nelson said. “They’re tough.”