Evacuation issue still needs work

By Steve Estes

Today ends another hurricane season in the Florida Keys and marks yet another year we managed to squeak by without any serious storms battering our diminutive shorelines.

Hurricane Sandy caused a few days of rough winds and some rain as it swept past us on its way to a clobbering of the northeast, but for the most part, we were able to glance at the Weather Channel occasionally and go on about our business.

But that doesn’t mean the threat of a major storm slamming our island chain is gone, even though chances are good the threat is gone for this year.

In a few months, we expect to have our current hurricane evacuation clearance time scenario approved by the state.

And as expected, that clearance time remains just a shade under 24 hours.

And we got to that mark as expected by eliminating as many people as we could from the final 24 hours before the onset of gale-force winds. We did that by shuffling numbers on paper.

We didn’t upgrade road segments to prevent the surefire deterioration of traffic flow when four lanes of traffic empty onto a two-lane bridge. We didn’t do that by widening any bridges to eliminate that bottleneck of two lanes, perhaps three if we can get cones up in time and get all the wide boat trailers, motor homes and commercial trucks to not tie up traffic on skinny segments of the only road into and out of here.

We didn’t force new buildings to be built to withstand a Category Five blow and possibly provide shelters of last resort when traffic backs up on a two-lane bridge. Of course, the state frowns on sheltering in place anyway, but folks caught on the road when the winds get high would probably appreciate the gesture regardless of the state’s sentiment.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that the Florida Keys has far surpassed the ability to get everybody out of harm’s way in 24 hours or less. So we juggle some numbers, do some occupancy studies that don’t cover the high weekends of July 4 and Fantasy Fest, and move whole classes of permanent residents—mobile homes, into the first phase of evacuation instead of counting them as the workforce that will still be here to the last minute, and we find a number we can live with.

There are still more than 10,000 platted lots in the Keys that have building rights on them. The state says we have 3,500 new residential units before we can’t meet the 24-hour evacuation time limit.

And we still don’t have leadership that is proposing implementing a revenue stream to cover the purchase of those remaining 6,500 buildable lots.

There have been lots of ideas bandied about for the latter, but nothing that would sit well with the no new money crowd.

So we muddle our way through another 10 years of hurricane seasons, crossing our fingers that a big storm doesn’t blow a serious hole in our evacuation methodology and leave some dead folks on the highways.

If we continue to lose permanent population, the juggling we have done will suffice in the short term. But if we build those 3,500 homes over the next 10 years, there is no amount of juggling that will bring us in under the 24-hour state mandate.

Then, we fear, the state will entertain extending the time limit rather than deal with the issue of retiring building rights on 6,500 privately-owned lots.

And we’re sure when that happens, Mother Nature will be so kind as to always give us 60 hours of notice before she slams us with a major storm. She will never turn a major storm in our direction quickly. She will never intensify a storm in a few hours so that it approaches major status after we’ve delayed evacuation so as not to upset our slow economy in the off season. She will never form a major storm right on top of us.

Yep. And the sea level won’t rise.

We got a reprieve for another year. Let’s start a serious dialogue on how we control growth to stay inside the parameters we think we can handle when Mother Nature gets angry.

And by the way, if we’re going to start that dialogue, it needs to come from people other than those who make their living by increasing growth.

There are a lot of side discussions that need to take place. At the top of that list is how to replace the lost tax revenue, or maintain some tax revenue without building rights, we will face by attempting to ensure public safety takes its proper place at the forefront of all thought about hurricane season.

For public safety must be paramount.

It simply must.

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