When Kim Koch lived in Michigan, she dealt with “no-notice” tornadoes. When she moved to Big Pine Key in 2001, she was grateful hurricanes at least offered time to prepare. But even with the advance warning, recovery from Hurricane Irma has not been easy—and the controversy about how reentry into the county was handled persists.
Big Pine Key was one of the hardest hit areas from Irma in 2017, Wilma in 2005 and Georges in 1998.
During Irma, Kim’s stilt house escaped all but some cosmetic damage, but the hurricane brought about 7½ feet of saltwater into her yard. She was left to clear away the muck topped with seaweed.
“I never did find my dryer,” Kim says, noting it was blown out of her house.
Still, she considers herself one of the lucky ones.
Survivors have many stories. Some were wiped out. Two years later, others are still waiting for insurance payments and repairs.
Irma left widespread wind and surge damage on both coasts and freshwater inundation in the interior. With maximum winds estimated at 165 mph, and storm surge up to 8 feet in some areas, the worst storm to hit the Keys in decades crossed over Cudjoe Key.
Even some large corporations have not rebuilt. More than 4,100 homes were destroyed or sustained major damage, and the Keys population has shrunk about 4% as citizens lost jobs and affordable housing.
With Irma literally chewing at her heels, Kim was among the last of thousands who heeded official warnings to evacuate.
In the aftermath, many who left expressed frustration. County reentry was barred until emergency crews could deal with public safety hazards. Roads needed to be cleared, bridges inspected, downed power lines removed and medical services reestablished. Power and water were unavailable immediately post-Irma.
Citizens wanted immediate access. They anxiously waited and worried about getting in to assess property damage.
County officials at all levels got an earful and were questioned as to why some gained early entry.
The answer depended on the level of training individuals had received.
Recognizing that the sooner people can reach their homes the better they can mitigate damage and salvage belongings and structures—and the more likely they are to comply with future evacuation notices—Monroe County Director of Emergency Management Marty Senterfitt proposed a system for expedited reentry.
Residents who complete a specific program can earn special placards allowing reentry prior to the county opening to all residents.
In June 2018, Marty held sessions using materials provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and modified for the Florida Keys to create a cadre of instructors for the program.
Kim signed up to be a trainer. Interested community members would be taught how to be safe, prepared and self-sufficient so they are not a hindrance to professional responders.
Marty envisioned recruiting volunteers interested in more than receiving placards, but who would join Monroe Emergency Reserve Corps and conduct the training countywide and interface with Emergency Management.
Kim stepped up as MERC’s president.
She held startup meetings and recruited people to represent five regions throughout the Keys. She developed bylaws, membership criteria and a mission statement. She obtained 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation for MERC and even fronted her own money to buy T-shirts for a fundraiser.
Kim convenes a monthly MERC board meeting, attends five monthly meetings run by the regional incident commanders and meets on other occasions to problem solve.
“I field all sorts of questions, try to get people into the training they are interested in and make sure the classes happen,” Kim says. “I pick up balls if they are dropped.”
With the assistance of other board members, Kim monitors and takes part in the placard classes, and prepares new class materials. She maintains the MERC webpage and researches tools such as mass text software for group communications during an emergency.
That is in addition to her full-time job as manager, human resources and finance person for a private entrepreneur with multiple hospitality industry properties in the Upper Keys.
In the program’s first year, 348 residents earned reentry placards. About 225 have renewed their placards for 2019, and 92 people have joined MERC, committing their time and knowledge to attend regional meetings and additional trainings.
According to their interests and abilities, members have done first aid and CPR courses, taken basic hazardous materials training, become licensed radio operators, trained as NOAA weather spotters, taken online FEMA classes and been volunteer victims at emergency drills.
In a chain-of-command system, each region has its own team of volunteers, reporting through Kim to the county emergency manager.
“MERC members are those who want to do more as community volunteers,” Kim says. “They want to develop knowledge to use and to share. Members continue to prepare themselves for any eventuality. I like that.”
She understands the naysayers. Professionals are afraid others will get in their way and prevent them from doing their jobs—whether it is clearing roads, securing properties or repairing utilities.
“They are also afraid that extra people will use up resources they need to move forward with recovery,” Kim says. “Those resources could be anything from utilitarian to medical. Anything can happen in the aftermath, including people using chain saws when they have no business doing so.”
Kim fully believes in the value of the program, and encourages everyone in the Keys to attend MERC’s training—even if they don’t want a placard or to volunteer.
“It’s not just about after the storm,” she says. “It’s about preparing before the storm, and it’s not even just about the storm. Its general procedures that can keep us safe whether lost camping or snowed in up north.
“Most people are very happy to see that they don’t have to fall into victimization—that there are things they can do to prepare themselves to be self-contained and self-sustained.”