Thursday, January 25, 2024

In the Florida Keys, a fight over adding more residents to evacuate. (Craig Pittman, Florida Phoenix, January 18, 2024)

Could evacuation numbers be a winning issue here in St. Johns County, particularly for our barrier beaches?  Harkening back to local government debates on overdevelopment, how many times have opponents ever presented statistics on evaluations?  From Florida Phoenix:


In the Florida Keys, a fight over adding more residents to evacuate

One hurricane can turn this island paradise into a dystopian nightmare

JANUARY 18, 2024 7:00 AM

 Craig Pittman with Florida authors Jeff VanderMeer, Lily Brooks-Dalton, and Lauren Groff on stage at the Key West Literary Seminar. Photo by Nick Doll used by permission of KWLS

KEY WEST — Florida’s southernmost city threw a big party for book lovers last week, and I was lucky enough to wangle an invitation.

At the Key West Literary Seminar, I heard Judy Blume and Lauren Groff condemn book bans. Dave Barry declared himself a candidate for president (there are already two Florida men running, so what’s one more?) And Carl Hiaasen told a hilarious story about a gaggle of Norwegian tourists in Miami whose hotel shuttle was carjacked. They thought it was a routine part of the Miami tourist experience.

The speakers offered interesting insights, too. For instance, acclaimed horror author Tananarive Due, who was born in Tallahassee and grew up in Miami, talked about what scares her: Hurricanes. She went through Andrew, a Category 5 storm that blew away a big chunk of Miami-Dade County in 1992.

I’m a scaredy-cat when it comes to Cat 5 storms too. I think anyone would be who knows the sheer destructive power of such a monstropolous beast. But apparently some Florida politicians have no fear — at least, not when it comes to the residents of the Florida Keys.

As Hurricane Irma showed in 2017, the Keys are absolutely the worst place in Florida for a hurricane. They’re a chain of islands with only one evacuation route, U.S. 1. This is why state law says the communities there must limit their growth to “maintain a hurricane evacuation clearance time for permanent residents of no more than 24 hours.”

The Keys are already at that point. Yet when Sen. Rick “I Support An Indicted Presidential CandidateBecause We’ve Both Pleaded the Fifth” Scott was governor, he said it would be okeydokey to add another 1,300 homes.

 Richard Grosso, courtesy of subject

That ridiculous decision was challenged in court. When a judge ruled against adding all those new residents, the Legislature stepped in last year to overturn the decision. Lawmakers told the developers to go right ahead with their building plans.

“It was as blatant a political override of a judicial ruling as I’ve ever seen,” said Richard Grosso, the veteran land-use attorney who represented those challenging all the new building.

But what about the impact of all these new residents on hurricane evacuation times? Apparently, those legislators took to heart the words of the TV commentator in the movie “Airplane!”talking about airline passengers: “They bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into. I say, let them crash!”

And now there’s talk of adding as many as 8,000 more — and using some sneaky methods to squeeze around the law.

‘This will destroy everything’

What we call things can be so instructive about what we believe is important.

The state agency that oversees Florida’s growth management was first called the Department of Community Affairs. That was replaced by the Department of Economic Opportunity. Then it became the Department of Commerce.

Now it’s “FloridaCommerce,” — just one word, like Cher, Madonna, or Rihanna, because that will … save time? Beats me.

Anyway, this mononym doesn’t so much manage growth as knock down anything that stands in its way.

Last month, the single-named agency released its new “Florida Keys Hurricane Evacuation Modeling Report,” the first such report in a decade. It makes no recommendations for what should be done but shows the possibility of developing nearly 8,000 vacant lots, which is thousands more than the state has permitted before.

The report says it’s intended to provide “options” for state officials. You can see why some people in the Keys are freaking out about that. As WLRN-FM reported this month, “New report spurs worries over public safety, the environment in the Keys.”

I suspect some of the freaking out is caused by the fact that FloridaCommerce is headed by a gubernatorial appointee with zero background in land planning or emergency services.

 J. Alex Kelly of FloridaCommerce, via FloridaCommerce

J. Alex Kelly’s experience is all in politics, juvenile justice, and education-related posts. Also, he’s a little distracted right now. In addition to running this state agency, he’s serving as acting chief of staff to our perpetually absent governor, who’s never met a developer he didn’t like.

Bear in mind that Gov. Ron “I Visited 99 Iowa Counties And All I Got Was a Distant Second?” DeSantis is the official who signed into law that bill reversing the court decision on the 1,300 homes. So, Kelly’s probably in the “let ’em crash” contingent, too.

The Monroe County Commission wrangled back and forth over what to do about the FloridaCommerce report. It finally sent a message to the Legislature to pleeeeease hold off making any changes in their building density this year, so they could discuss it with voters all over the county. After all, it’s their lives that are at stake.

But then, last week, the Marathon City Council requested that that one Keys city be handed all 8,000 dwelling units. Oh, and also, please increase the allowable hurricane evacuation time from 24 hours to 31 hours.

Most people in Marathon had no idea their council was doing this, by the way.

This resolution was slipped onto the council’s “consent” agenda by City Manager George Garrett, meaning the council passed it, along with a lot of other unrelated measures, with no discussion or debate.

When reporters asked Garrett about this slippery trick, he contended “the resolution was on the agenda and any of the commissioners or the public could have pulled it off the consent agenda and spoke to it,” the Key West Citizen reported. But no one did.

In the meantime, he also sent the resolution to DeSantis, the Florida Senate president, and the speaker of the Florida House, as well as Keys’ Rep. Jim Mooney and Sen. Ana Marie Rodriguez. Mooney, for one, said he was upset by the request.

“This is very frustrating,” he told the paper. “We have spent 40 years protecting the environment, and this will destroy everything.”

The last stand

Before Hiaasen wrote any novels about an ex-governor who eats roadkill or a bad guy who’s killed by an amorous dolphin, he was a terrific investigative reporter for the Miami Herald.

One of his best scoops was a series he wrote in 1981 with a colleague named Brian Duffy about a development in North Key Largo named Port Bougainville. It was expected to be the largest condominium and hotel development ever built in the Keys — 2,800 units complete with canals and floating gondolas.

Hiaasen and Duffy reported that Port Bougainville’s developers had misrepresented the project’s size and had started knocking down mangroves without obtaining final permits from state and federal officials. Meanwhile, one elected official who voted on the project had been seen handing out Port Bougainville brochures.

 Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park via Florida Park Service

Their series killed Port Bougainville as dead as that guy in the dolphin tank. The land became the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, home to 84 protected species of plants and animals — including a couple of types of trees that can kill people, the poisonwood and the manchineel.

I mention this because the series was called “The Last Stand,” and that’s now the name of an environmental group in Monroe County — Keys Last Stand, begun in 1987.

 Ann Olsen of Keys Last Stand via Keys Last Stand

I contacted their president, Ann Olsen, a Summerland Key resident, to ask her about the FloridaCommerce report. She sounded about ready to feed some manchineel leaves to the folks pushing this dangerous increase.

“This is setting the Keys up for a future disaster,” she told me.

It’s not just the threat of a future hurricane, she said. Monroe County is already grappling with aging infrastructure that can’t keep up with its existing residents.

To traverse the Keys by car requires crossing 19 miles of bridges, but “every bridge needs repair,” Olsen told me.

Then there’s the drinking water. The Herald reported last month that there were three consecutive breaks in the fresh water main in one month, creating an emergency for the thousands of homes and businesses from the Upper Keys to Key West.

“Our water comes from a 130-mile pipeline that needs replacing, at a cost of $10 million per mile,” Olsen said. Utility officials recently reduced the water pressure to the lower Keys, “because if we keep it at the regular rate, the pipe would have leaks.”

The Keys got a new billion-dollar sewer system in 2017, but by 2021 it had leaked more than 90,000 gallons of raw sewage into the islands’ waterways. Repairs, set for 2025, are likely to cost $16 million, according to the Herald.

Then there are the roads. Olsen pointed out that Monroe County does a traffic study every two years. The only one that showed the county’s roads passing muster was from the first year of the pandemic, when no one was on the road, she said. The ones for two years before and after that year showed a failing grade.

Meanwhile, Olsen said, there are some sneaky things going on to make everything look copacetic.

Juking the stats

This brings up a term from a TV show about Baltimore, not Key West.

In “The Wire,” one of the characters talks about “juking the stats.” That means playing with the numbers in reports so they look better than they actually are. Police may underreport or purposely misclassify crimes to hide their failures.

“There’s lots of monkeying around with the numbers” on Keys evacuation, Olsen said.

One of the state’s computer models left out Key West, “our most populous city with the longest evacuation commute,” she said.

Another left out any home not occupied on April 1, counting it as vacant year-round — with no mention of the proliferation of vacation rentals, she said.

“Last Stand had been asking FloridaCommerce to include the Navy and mobile home residents, since they are year-round residents,” she told me. “But that puts the evacuation numbers at 26+ hours, and they’d be out of compliance.”

No matter what the study says about counting them, all of these folks would have to flee a hurricane too, she pointed out.

Seeing the state try juking the stats is not a surprise. Just ahead of Hurricane Ian making landfall there in 2022, a Lee County official admitted in a public hearing that the evacuation time for its coastal high hazard area was 96 hours, not the 16 required by law.

To quote the movie “Dodgeball,” Lee County — and, according to this official, 35 other coastal counties — dodged, dipped, ducked, dove, and dodged around the rules by taking advantage of a loophole in the law.

That loophole says contributing to the number of storm shelters for the evacuees can alleviate concerns about the evacuation time. Developers can build new storm shelters, donate land for storm shelters, or donate money to buy storm shelters.

In other words, it’s all about providing shelters within driving distance, not about making it easy to get out of harm’s way. By juking the stats, these counties could OK developers’ plans, even though they were putting lots of people’s lives at risk.

Here’s a fun fact from the FloridaCommerce report: “There are currently no hurricane shelters available in the Florida Keys for residents to safely evacuate to in the event of a hurricane designated as a Category 3 or greater.”

So, when the Big One hits, people in the Keys need to flee all the way to the mainland or die. Oh, and the roads on the mainland are liable to already be clogged with evacuees.

“The Keys are a canary in the coal mine,” Grosso told me. “If you can’t maintain strong growth management in the Keys, how are you going to do it anywhere else?’

Welcome to Dystopia!

While all this numerical finagling is going on, Olsen pointed out, the sea level keeps rising around all the islands. That leads to sunny day floods and much higher storm surges. Plus, the hurricanes are growing more intense thanks to the warmer waters.

But advocates for allowing more building in the Keys argue that property rights trumps safety.

Despite the entire island chain being under a growth management clampdown that dates to the days when Reubin Askew was governor, they’re claiming the government must either allow them to build or hand over millions of dollars for taking their property. Talk of those “takings” claims is making plenty of city and county officials n-n-nervous.

Here’s where the Key West Literary Seminar can help out.

At the Seminar, I moderated a panel of three authors — Groff, Jeff VanderMeer, and Lily Brooks-Dalton — who were discussing “Dystopian Realism and Climate Fiction.” That’s a major trend in fiction these days as authors confront our changing world.

How dystopian would the Keys be after a devastating Cat 5 hurricane, especially if the expanded population fails to get out of its way? Think of all the death and destruction scattered across that ravishing landscape. Think what an inspiration that could be for authors who live elsewhere!

I say the governor and Legislature should allow developers to build as many new homes and condos as they want all along that string of rapidly shrinking islands — but only on one condition. They have to include a prominent sign in front of every new building that says, “Soon to be the scene of a dystopian nightmare.”

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Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Capitalist junk yard and free for all everywhere in Florida. Only thing gonna help the keys is redevelopment. State and federal government would never go for it.. and county couldn't fund it.