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Rebuilding The Florida Keys One Year After Irma

A mobile home on Little Torch Key destroyed by Hurricane Irma. Photographed on Sept. 19, 2017.
Tom Hudson
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Monroe County is waiting for $90 million of federal money promised to help rebuild and repair damage after Hurricane Irma and help better protect the Keys from future storms. 

As of early August, the state has access to the money after a disaster recovery plan was okayed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We are hopeful that we will see, at least by early 2019, one home reconstructed in one of those programs," said Monroe County Assistant Administrator Christine Hurley, who heads up the county's building department.

The state says it will begin comunity outreach and post information online about how homeowners can apply for the grant money "in coming weeks." 

Among the programs awaiting the federal money is one that will be used to repair, replace and elevate older homes in the Keys. The county has been promised $50 million for this effort, which it hopes will cover 300 homes. “This is the agency’s number one priority,” says Tiffany Vause, director of communications for the Department of Economic Opportunity.

"What's frustrating for the citizens is they're either in temporary housing or some of them stayed in their housing with assistance to rebuild a rudimentary improvement. They're there waiting for assistance. Timing is the most frustrating part of this," Hurley says.

Still, Hurley doesn't consider the money delayed "based on how the program works in the first place."

Rebuilding the Keys

Almost 5,000 properties were damaged or heavily destroyed by Hurricane Irma when it made landfall at Cudjoe Key on Sept. 10, 2017. Rebuilding those lost homes has been extremely slow. According to county data, only 228 permits for demolition of properties destroyed or badly damaged have been submitted since the storm. Only 27 permits have been filed to rebuild single family homes and just three have been submitted for new mobile homes.

In addition to using the federal rebuilding money to fund 300 homes, money will go toward buying two mobile home parks and building new rental housing managed by the county housing authority as affordable housing units.

"Most people have their insurance money," Hurley says. "They're trying to decide what to do. These programs will provide the last link to recovery. We have lost citizens. We have lost workforce." 

Shrinking Workforce

Monroe County has one of the lowest unemployment rates among Florida counties -- just 3.2 percent in July. While that’s higher than before Irma, there are fewer people in the workforce in the Keys compared to before the storm. The labor force in Monroe County was 11 percent smaller this past July versus a year earlier. It is the biggest percentage drop in the workforce among Florida counties. And it represents more than 5,400 fewer people available and interested in working in the Keys.

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In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.