KEY WEST, Fla. – On Sept. 25, Gov. Rick Scott activated a 400-Soldier task force, led by the newly formed 753rd Brigade Engineer Battalion, to conduct debris clearance and residential de-mucking for the residents of Monroe County.
To date, the Soldiers have assisted with clearing 184 residences, and the task force has 177 residences slated for debris removal and de-mucking over the next several days.
Prior to this humanitarian mission, the 753rd used their heavy equipment to clear U.S. 1 from Florida City to Key West within 24 hours of the storm passing in order to allow first responders and others access to the Keys.
"We now have the unique opportunity to return and help these fellow Floridians take their first steps toward rebuilding and recovery," said 753rd BEB Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Betsy Evans. "This is what we signed up for and I'm extremely proud to have the opportunity to be part of this critical mission in support of Monroe County and the state of Florida."
This second state mission brings forth a unique skillset of Engineers and Soldiers who are trained to perform basic construction-type operations of interior demolition and de-mucking. While this is not a typical mission for the National Guard, its execution is vital to the stabilization of an area hit hardest by Hurricane Irma. The storm passed directly through the Lower Keys, leaving nearly 12,000 homes uninhabitable and with limited hotels or shelters for displaced residences.
"There's such a limited amount of housing in Monroe County, being an island chain, that we have to utilize the houses we have, and we do that through the process that we're going through now," said Martin Senterfitt, Monroe County's director of emergency management.
The Keys also face unique geographic challenges that other counties have not faced post-Irma. Standard recovery efforts are halted or at least stalled due to a minimum two-hour travel time from the mainland to the Lower Keys, extending the time it takes for contractors to come into the area to assist or for debris contractors to pull debris out of the Keys.
"What makes the National Guard so important to us is that there aren't enough hotels to bring in the traditional contractors … when the National Guard comes in, they come in self-sufficient and they're able to house themselves, transport themselves, and right now the Guard is able to come in and start that first initial part of this mission."
Given the high number of personnel displaced with limited resources available for housing, the Guard members have stepped in to help Monroe County accelerate the timeline for residents to have a safe home to eventually return to once additional repairs and modifications are made by others. There's an evaluation process that occurs where the 753rd goes into a home to see what they can do to make the home livable again. Some of the homes are completely destroyed, in which case the team might only be able to help the residents recover certain valuables. In most cases the debris is removed, and a room cleared for the residents to start using again.
"People literally start crying when (the Guard members) show up. It shows that the state and the nation hasn't forgotten the Keys, whether it was the first day after the storm when we had C-130s and Black Hawks flying overhead delivering supplies, to now when we have the Army convoys moving through the streets," said Senterfitt. "The patriotism is outstanding."
The process to restore the Keys will take several months and multiple players, but Senterfitt says the way everyone has responded to Hurricane Irma sets the standard for disaster response.
"A lot of people may not hear much about the Florida Keys as perhaps they're hearing about Texas or even Puerto Rico, but part of that is because of the incredible success we're having down here," said Senterfitt. "This is a story about working together and solving problems. "
The success of the 753rd throughout the Keys is surprising considering the unit was only formed just days prior to Hurricane Irma's landfall.
"Given this Battalion relocated, transformed and activated on Sept. 1 and we were activated on Sept. 7, I'm amazed at the cohesion and professionalism our Soldiers continue to exhibit," said Evans. Despite being activated for over three weeks, she says the Soldiers' morale is still very high and that they feel a sense of pride about the work they're doing here. "The Soldiers are passionate about what they are doing and it shows in each and every interaction they have with these home owners. This is truly why each of us volunteered to raise our right hand and join the Florida National Guard. "