Debris chokes Keys’ waterways, but help may arrive soon
pummeled the Keys in September, and today hundreds of canals across the islands remain clogged with storm debris.
MARATHON — On an unseasonably cool day in the Florida Keys, a manatee drifted through a canal, stopping occasionally to graze on an algae-coated recreational vehicle that only just barely crested the water’s surface.
That sunken RV is just one of 16 swept from the adjacent streets by Hurricane Irma in September.
This 18-foot deep canal — filled with more wrecked homes than bobbing boats — is just one of hundreds in the island chain still clogged with storm trash.
But a canal clean-up in the Keys could finally be near.
Monroe County says it is close to reaching an agreement to start clearing canals, one of the final steps in picking up the massive amount of trash left behind by Irma.
On land alone, more than 2.3 million cubic yards of debris have been removed, including more than 19,000 large appliances.
But four months later, it’s still unclear how much remains in the canals, some of which still look like the hurricane hit yesterday.
Many visitors might not even notice the problem.
The main highway is no longer lined with mountains of garbage, salt-soaked cars and fridges full of stinking, rotten food.
Instead, bright red signs warning against illegal dumping dot the median.
But for many residents along the canals, who picked up their yards and even gutted and repaired houses while junk rots in the waterways behind their homes, the clogged canals remain an ongoing frustration.
Some have even tried to take on the massive cleanup themselves — at least small parts of it.
Paula Rybacki, who moved a conch-style cottage from Key West to Big Pine Key only to lose it in Irma, spends most mornings fishing small chunks of debris from her canal with a rake.
“If you see any blue pieces in here, that’s my house,” she said. “Maybe even that board right there.”
Her home borders what has
come to be known as the most debris-choked canal on Big Pine Key.
The waterway is full of gas tanks, paint cans, chunks of wood — and even four fuel tanks from an F-14 aircraft, which the neighbors have taken to calling “Irma bombs.”
Monroe County’s Sustainability Program Manager Rhonda Haag said it has taken months to negotiate with FEMA and Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection for help.
Neither agency has ever done such work, or paid for it, after previous hurricanes. After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, for instance, debris was left to rot in the canals for more than a decade.
But Irma’s debris made that look like a drop in the bucket in some stretches of the Keys.
“This was a much bigger impact, much more debris in the canals and much more widespread,” Haag said.
This time around, FEMA agreed to pay to clean the canals enough for navigational purposes. At first, the agency wanted to scoop out stuff in just the top 6 feet of water — enough depth for most small boats to pass through.
But that would just scrape the surface of many of the county’s canals, some of which go down 40 feet. After months of talks, Haag said that FEMA has agreed to go down to a depth of 15 feet.
The bright side for Keys residents: Monroe County won’t be picking up the tab, which could end up in the tens of millions of dollars.
The county — already burdened with a costly cleanup on land that surpassed $20 million in December alone — does not have enough money to handle its cluttered waterways, even with FEMA promising reimbursement.
So the state agreed to step in and pay upfront to clean the debris and muck from the county’s 330 canals.