Evacuation talks leaves out issue

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners last Friday approved a document that outlines what variables will be used to run the hurricane evacuation clearance time model for the county.

And as predicted, the scenario to be used keeps the county under the state-mandated 24-hour clearance time.

Coming in under 24 hours was always the goal because many years ago the state tied further building in the Keys to the county’s ability to get people out of harm’s way in the face of a major storm in less than 24 hours.

Bad planning always sets someone up for failure.

When the state set this arbitrary guideline, it failed to do its homework. There were, even then, more buildable parcels of land in the Keys than could be utilized without exceeding that cap. And little has changed.

The state refused to come to the table as a partner in partial takings cases as the county fought with the random time table for evacuation clearance, instead allowing paperwork shuffles that eliminated more and more of the Keys’ functional population from the evacuation equation.

Some road improvements were made. Some even aided in evacuation. But not enough. Not nearly enough.

And all the while, residential and commercial building continued. There were no caveats on public construction forcing the buildings to be available for emergency sheltering when, not if, people can’t get out of the way in time.

It’s good for government that most of the old-timers in the Keys, and those who consider themselves freshwater Conchs, have adopted the devil-may-care attitude of the early 20th century settlers here.

Those folks all believe that they have things under control, live with the environment, and don’t worry about Mother Nature except in an abstract way.

For the state and county government officials are relying on that attitude to be able to take the Pontius Pilot approach to any eventual disaster, effectively washing their hands of any responsibility because the “locals” decided of their own free will to stay behind and get mangled by a major storm.

But that’s not the point here.

We already know we can’t clear the functional population of the Keys on any given day out of the way in less than 24 hours.

So we eliminate portions of the functional population from the equation. We eliminate tourists, telling them they must go, but we don’t have a plan for increasing ways out, we leave them to their own devices.

We eliminate those who reside in mobile homes, knowing full well they are the least able to afford early evacuations and the most necessary in providing a work force to button up for everyone else.

But they are off the equation.

And so we continue to allow a full plate of yearly building permits because the cost would be too high not to allow that in legal repercussions. And we continue to maintain that we have met the 24-hour threshold.

What’s lost in this entire conversation is that we know we can’t maintain 24 hours and build more. And we won’t tackle the question of how to actually make an attempt to safeguard lives.

We do that by embarking on an aggressive program to purchase buildable lots. We have been buying enormous amounts of land over the years, mostly large unbuildable tracts that would have never contributed to the evacuation times.

What we need to do is shift focus and work on decreasing the number of lots that can be used to build homes and commercial projects. Yes, it will be expensive.

Perhaps using the infrastructure sales tax proceeds after the sewers are paid for would be a way to combat the problem, and might be more palatable to the voters than anything else other than roads and bridges.

That the tax would go for two very important public safety issues might be a selling point, and might actually help in saving lives down the road.

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