By Mandy Miles Key West Citizen, September 7, 2019

Photo above: Dr. Doug Mader, still awaiting any insurance settlement, is seen in the midst of his construction project on Big Pine Key. The decades-long resident’s home suffered damages from past storms and was destroyed during Hurricane Irma. The new home will be on cement pilings to avoid future damage. (ROB O’NEAL/The Citizen)

The past two weeks of unending news coverage of Hurricane Dorian’s approach, arrival and assault hit home in the Florida Keys, where thousands of residents continue to do battle with contractors, insurance adjusters, inspectors and government officials in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

It was two years ago Tuesday that Hurricane Irma spun itself away from the Cuban coast and charged across the Florida Straits, where dangerously warm waters further fortified the storm as it approached the vulnerable island chain that dangles like a comma from the mainland.

Boats and debris are left behind in ‘The Avenues’ section of Big Pine Key following landfall of Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10, 2017.

On Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, a Category 4 Irma crossed the Lower Keys at Cudjoe Key packing 130-mph winds that peeled roofs off buildings as if they were lids on a cat food can. On Big Pine, the storm destroyed nearly everything in its path, with mobile homes bearing the bulk of the punishment. One resident of a stilted and strong Habitat for Humanity home on Big Pine filmed the rising storm surge waters from her 12-foot-high front porch. The churning white water had nearly reached the top step.

But for many who had heeded the warnings, secured their property and evacuated, the true nightmare would begin once they could finally return home more than two weeks later to find toppled trees and soggy piles of insulation where their cherished homes had been anywhere between Islamorada and Sugarloaf Key.

Crews work on one of several towering piles of debris near Ramrod Key, six weeks after Hurricane Irma passed over the Florida Keys in 2017. While most of the debris that littered U.S. 1 following the Category 4 storm has been cleared, the county is still working on clearing out canals up and down the Keys. (ROB O’NEAL/The Citizen)

Keys veterinarian Dr. Doug Mader has lived on the water on Big Pine Key for more than 20 years. His home was heavily damaged in Hurricane Georges in 1998, Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and Irma in 2017.

“I’d say the most important message for people as we look back after two years is not to give up when it comes to the insurance companies,” Mader said. “I’m still waiting on two insurance claims, and I’ve told the insurance people that if this goes to court, it’’ll be tried in Monroe County, and I can’t believe any jury in the Keys would be sympathetic to the insurance companies,” Mader said.

Mader’s street on Big Pine Key remains only half occupied since Hurricane Irma.

“I don’t know what happened to half of my neighbors because they’ve never been back since the storm,” he said.”At least three houses are earmarked for demolition.”

Big Pine Key residents Harry Appel and Jenny DeMaria just reopened the Deer Run Bed and Breakfast last Tuesday, one week shy of the second anniversary of the storm that devastated the property.

“It looks really nice,” Appel said. “It’s rated for a Category 5 storm. Everything is upstairs now.”

The couple just reached a settlement with the property insurance carrier for their home on Long Beach Road and plan to soon start work on that project. The waterfront home was destroyed in Irma.

In addition to the personal disasters, Keys governments are still dealing with insurance companies and awaiting reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As of Aug. 21, Monroe County had submitted $60.9 million in requests to FEMA for reimbursement for various Hurricane Irma recovery projects. The state Division of Emergency Management has validated, or approved, $37.1 million of the $45 million in completed or in-progress projects to be dispersed to Monroe County. The county has received a total of $26.3 million. The remaining expenses are still in the first review phase, said Tina Boan, county budget manager.

The county is still awaiting word on its appeal of FEMA’s refusal to fund $6 million for the base camp the county set up after Hurricane Irma. The county has contracted with a firm that specializes in obtaining FEMA funding for local governments and has FEMA’s former general counsel, Ernest Abott, on its legal team. County Administrator Roman Gastesi said he is optimistic the appeal will be supported and overturned.

The state has embarked on the Rebuild Florida program since Irma to help Florida and Florida Keys residents rebuild their homes at no or little cost to the homeowners. So far, 1,233 homeowners have completed registrations, 1,069 have been invited to apply and 298 have completed applications.

In Marathon, City Manager Chuck Lindsay said, “First, we are seeing movement, so I do not want to criticize FEMA. It’s getting better.”

The City of Marathon submitted $29.1 million in reimbursement requests from FEMA and has received a total of $1.67 million, Lindsay said. In addition, $6.5 million has been obligated for Marathon, meaning the city is authorized to spend its own money for certain approved projects and then put in for reimbursement, “which is difficult to do when accounts are low without reimbursement.”

But Lindsay had some good things to say about state officials.

“The state of Florida has been a huge help,” Lindsay said. “The communication, the assistance, and the transparency under Director [Jared] Moskowitz’s watch has been outstanding. Simply put these funds are still locked up on the federal side but we are seeing movement and we are optimistic and grateful for the changes being made at the state level.”

Change can’t come soon enough for so many Keys residents who have been waiting for two years.

Citizen staff writers Jill Zima Borski and Timothy O’Hara contributed to this report.

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