A warm Sunday in the Florida Keys. North of Big Pine Key, the waters leading to Content Keys were flat calm, visibility was extraordinary.
Gary and Jennifer Cox of Little Torch Key were taking advantage of the beautiful conditions, motoring out to the Contents and going for a dip in the crystal clear, still-warm waters.
Nearly 27 years before this typical Florida Keys weekend day, a supertanker plied the waters of the Caribbean Sea between Jamaica and Cuba. During that transit, 1,106 bottles were launched into the sea as part of a science experiment for then 11-year-old Brian Akers of Beaumont, Tex.
Akers had spent months gathering the glass soda bottles from the sides of roads around Beaumont. He inserted a numbered, two-sided note in each bottle explaining what the process was and giving potential “finders” information on how to contact him should they find one of his bottles.
With the notes securely inside, Akers sealed the bottles using paraffin under the caps to ensure they would remain watertight.
He then sent the bottles to sea with a neighbor who was the first mate on an oil tanker. The neighbor recorded the date, the bottle number and the latitude and longitude when he chucked each bottle over the side.
Ocean currents and tides took over from there.
The exact path bottle #529 took may never be known, but where it finished its trek was on the deck of the Cox’s boat on its trip back in to Little Torch.
Opening day of stone crab season Tuesday wasn’t nearly as strong as had been hoped, but some of that is probably to blame on a still-hot lobster market.
Fanci Seafood owner Bobby Holloway, Cudjoe Key, said first-day catch for this season was down from last year, and last year was a dismal year for crab, but the industry hasn’t given up any hope for a rebound at this early juncture.
Mayor George Neugent Wednesday asked county staff to start the process to find a facility somewhere between the south end of 7-Mile Bridge and Cow Creek Channel where he might locate a permit office for residents of the Lower Keys who will need to start pulling plumbing and electrical permits in the not-too-distant future.
Monroe’s Board of County Commissioners Wednesday decided to eliminate another 1,180 low-pressure grinder pumps from the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System.
A Cudjoe Key based group, the Sir Isaac Newton Coalition, has been fighting against the installation of grinder pumps in areas the group considers high density for nearly eight months. As that battle unfolded in front of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, the BOCC and finally the courts, residents in other areas began to question why they had subdivisions where a hybrid mix of gravity and grinder systems were planned.
County Commissioner Danny Kolhage also questioned why that wasn’t done.
After confirming that the cost per equivalent dwelling unit was similar or lower than the EDU cost for the Cudjoe and Sugarloaf additions rbought up by Mayor George Neugent, Kohage made it clear that he intended to get gravity systems for that area as well.
The issue made the agenda because Neugent agreed with the coalition that what he thought he was getting for county dollars in the dense areas of Cudjoe and Sugarlaof weren’t grinder pumps.
“I have no issue with the use of grinder pumps, but my issue is with what we thought we were getting versus what we got,” said Neugent.
County Engineer Kevin Wilson said that it would cost an additional $2.5 million to convert the 236 grinder pumps on Cudjoe and Sugarloaf in the at-issue subdivisions to gravity systems, including the additional paving.
The contractor is required to pave fully whatever lane is damaged for gravity pipes, and the county has agreed to pave the other lane during the mobilization to save costs.
The Monroe Board of County Commissioners Wednesday will take what should be the final step in getting approval to renovate the No Name Key Bridge.
The county must sign an agreement with the state that allows Florida Department of Transportation to funnel federal money into the project to renovate the nearly 50-year-old span across Bogie Channel that is the only vehicular link to the remote island of No Name Key.
Monroe County will have to pony up about $1.6 million in road and bridge money for its share of the $6.3 million project.
Local commercial fishermen have begun to sink their stone crabs in anticipation of Tuesday’s opening of the season for 2013.
“Everybody is hoping for a good season, but we won’t really know anything until mid-week next week,” said Bobby Holloway, owner of Fanci Seafood fish house on Cudjoe Key.
The Monroe Board of County Commissioners will take up a discussion Wednesday about reducing the number of low-pressure grinder pumps in use in the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System.
Mayor George Neugent, whose district two encompasses all of the proposed Cudjoe Regional service area, plans to ask his fellow commissioners to approve an additional $1.5 million to maybe $2 million to replace planned grinder pumps in areas of recognized high density on Cudjoe Key and Sugarloaf Key with gravity systems.
Neugent wants to specifically target the rest of Cudjoe Gardens where current plans call for a hybrid mix of gravity and grinder pumps, sometimes on neighboring streets for all gravity installations.
“It’s not that I have any issue with using grinder pumps in this system,” said Neugent. “I believe, with the research I’ve done independently, that grinder pumps will work for the Cudjoe Regional system.”
Neugent says his issue is more with what he thinks was a switch from what the BOCC thought it was getting for its money to what it actually got.
“I have a problem with the overall number of grinder pumps being proposed for these obviously higher density areas,” he said.
As new flood insurance rates get set to start kicking in throughout Monroe County, the grass-roots insurance advocacy group Fair Insurance Rates for Monroe is branching out to try and attack the problem.
Homeowners and commercial properties here will see stark changes in flood insurance premiums in many cases when renewal times start to roll around now that the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act has implemented.
Several attempts by federal Legislators to delay the implementation of the new law have failed in Congress, and FIRM President and County Commissioner Heather Carruthers says that she expects very little action on the flood insurance front in Washington until the current shutdown fiasco is resolved.
“Everything is at a standstill for now while they fight about continuing funding in Washington,” said Carruthers.
And while that bodes no good for many property owners in the Keys, that gives FIRM a little breathing room because the group is currently in the midst of a windstorm rate study to try and deflect triple digit increases in that realm for Monroe County property owners.
“We have established a sub-committee that is looking at flood insurance, but its just in a fledgling state, doing more data gathering than anything right now,” said Carruthers.
FIRM is well aware of the devastation the proposed flood insurance premium increases can cause on the Keys, particularly since the real estate market has finally begun to recover.
“We’ve been told by local Realtors that the new flood premiums could make ground-level homes in the Keys unsellable due to the rate increases unless someone can pay cash and not need the insurance,” she said.
Sue Cherrybon, an agent with Johnson’s Insurance on Big Pine, said that homes built before Jan. 1, 1975 may immediately feel the brunt of the increases as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the National Flood Insurance Program phases out or eliminates federal subsidies for those homes and commercial buildings.
Carruthers says everyone will see at least a six percent increase, even those homes built after that date.
“A lot also depends on where the house is located, what the flood zone is, and how its used,” she said.
Cherrybon says that most post-FIRM homes are already paying an actuarial rate and should see little change.
“But pre-FIRM homes that are not the primary residence, are an established rental unit, or commercial properties will see at least a 25 percent increase each year until FEMA has what they think is an actuarially sound rate,” said Cherrybon.
Many of the new rates will kick in if the property is sold, she added. “When the property sells, all of the previous subsidies are removed. If the house is below base flood elevation, buyers are going to see a drastic increase in flood premiums.”
The new rates may also kick in if the flood policy lapses for any reason, or if FEMA decides that the property has a repetitive loss history and cancels flood insurance.
“One of the problems with flood insurance, just like with windstorm, is that Monroe County already pays so much higher rates than other areas,” said Carruthers.
She said FIRM’s initial push is going to be to allow residential units to mitigate flood risk by more flood-proofing.
“You can lower flood rates on a commercial property by mitigating for flood damage, but you can’t do that with residential properties,” said Carruthers. “We want to lobby our representatives to have FEMA allow flood-proofing mitigation credits just like we have with windstorm with shutters and strengthened building codes.”
“FIRM is just stretched to thin right now with the wind rates study to be able to devote the necessary time it will take to fight this. But we must. Our residents can’t stand a hit like this on insurance. We’ve heard of cases where flood premiums would rise to the level of a monthly mortgage. Our people can’t afford that,” she said.
Those seeing further information or who want to give information on flood insurance scenarios to FIRM can do so at the group’s website, FIRM.org.
The largest federal agency on Big Pine Key is down to a staff of three for as long as the US government shut down continues.
According to National Key Deer Refuge Manager Nancy Finley, the government shutdown has left the refuge with just one full-time law enforcement agent, one law enforcement agent that splits time between here and the other three refuge complexes in the Keys, and herself as the only working staff.
“We got a memo from our superiors that detailed exempt personnel from the shut down, and I’m it along with two law enforcement personnel,” said Finley.
Three of the five worst canals for water quality in Monroe County are located on Big Pine Key and all are the top candidates in their respective categories for a pilot project designed to change that status.
The Monroe Board of County Commissioners has agreed to proceed with a pilot project to clear up poor water quality in residential canals, the next step in an overall program to enhance near shore water quality. The first step was the development of county-wide central wastewater systems. The last of those, the Cudjoe Regional, is already under construction.
Scientists have reported for more than a decade that the coral reef that borders the Keys has been deteriorating, partly due to increasing water temperatures and partly due to pollutants making their way to the reef.
The reef is called by many the economic lifeblood of the Keys.
The wastewater projects are supposed to trap pollutants that before might leach into near shore waters from faulty septic systems. The canal restoration projects are designed to improve water quality in the canals, canals which eventually feed into the near shore waters. And then eventually find a way to the reef tract.