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Grandson helps rescue grandparents helplessly drifting out to sea in Florida Keys

The wind was blowing at about 15 knots, catching the top of Jim and Kim Harris’ 21-foot Mako boat, giving it sailboat-type of effect as Kim tossed the anchor into the water.

But the gusting wind caused the anchor rope to be ripped from her hands, and she yelled back to her husband to back up the boat, although Jim did not realize she had thrown in the anchor — or that it was beneath the boat when he kicked it into reverse.

The rope became entangled in the propeller and stalled the motor. It all happened so fast, in about a minute and a half, they recalled in an interview with The Key West Citizen.

The Harrises had planned to go for a swim on Thursday, Oct. 8, with their 11-year-old grandson, Avani Perez, when things went terribly wrong off Rodriguez Key, about a mile offshore from Mile Marker 99, oceanside.

Jim thought at first it was a mechanical issue, as the boat would not shift into neutral when he attempted to restart. When he went to the stern, he saw the the anchor line had coiled around their propeller. Because they were suddenly stern anchored, it spun the boat into the gusting weather. Jim’s main concern was the boat could start taking on water in the two- to three-foot seas.

Jim says he did not consider calling for help, because it would have taken too long to arrive. “I jumped in the water and assessed it; it probably had half a dozen wraps around it [the propeller] that were pretty tight,” Jim said.

While Jim tried to cut the anchor line, the wind picked up and carried him about 15-20 yards from the boat.

“I saw him there, not realizing he’s not going to be able to swim back, and all of a sudden he says to me, ‘Kim, I’m not going to be able to get back to the boat, you better throw me something,’ “ Kim recalled. She looked around the boat, but passed on tossing Jim a personal flotation device. Instead, she put together three pool noodles and jumped into the water to rescue him.

“I was thinking I need to get to him. I knew he wasn’t drowning at that moment, but I knew he can’t swim or float forever,” she said. “I didn’t want him to get so far away that I couldn’t get to him with something to help him,” Kim said.

She made it to her husband, who grabbed a noodle, and together they turned and began swimming toward the boat, which by now was even farther away.

By this time, Avani yelled to see if he should call the U.S. Coast Guard. Jim told his grandson to call 911.

“At first, when they both jumped in the water, I was a little worried, but I called the cops and I knew they were on their way, so I wasn’t scared or anything,” Avani said.

Jim said they could see Avani on the phone as they continued to helplessly drift farther into the ocean.

Jim had no doubt Avani could communicate their coordinates, as the boy has been on and around boats since he was 2-years old.

Avant knew what to do, Jim said, and he remained calmed as he spoke with the 911 communications specialist with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.

Kim, however, said she was worried about Avani being scared, while also being afraid she and her husband would drift and end up in a different country. She added she was praying a lot, “Please, Lord, take care of me, give Avani the guidance, please make a boat come by, that’s what is going through my mind.”

The pair kept treading water, trying to keep in sight of the boat, as Jim reassured his wife they would be OK.

“I knew in my heart, it might take an hour, it might take three hours, but help was on the way,” Jim said.

Avani, who is in the sixth grade and likes football, kept updating the 911 operator on their coordinates, using football yards to say how far away his grandparents were from him in the water.

“I couldn’t tell them in miles, because [they] weren’t that far away yet, and I couldn’t tell them in feet because it would be like a million feet, but I knew yards, I told [the 911 operator] they were like a football field away,” Avani said.

Avant said he wasn’t really scared about the situation because the 911 operator, 29-year Sheriff’s Office veteran Amanda Colemen, kept telling him help was on the way. Coleman reported remained calm and followed all safety procedures.

Rescue boats began closing in as the two grandparents had been in the water for precisely an hour and their thought when they saw help arriving was, “Thank God!”

As rescue boats from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Coast Guard closed in on the couple, Jim hoisted one of their florescent pool noodles to guide them. After the hour-long ordeal, the couple was rescued from the water by a commercial fisherman, and the FWC soon afterward reunited the three.

Avani was invited to Coast Guard Station Islamorada on Friday in order to commend him for his actions during the ordeal.

“The Sheriff’s Office, FWC and U.S. Coast Guard all worked as a team and saved lives,” said FWC Capt. David Dipre. “The outcome was outstanding, because of the outstanding partnerships, excellent communication and strong desire to help others.”

dkelly@keysnews.com


Government
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State House Dist. 120 seat is up for grabs

The differences between the Republican and Democrat candidates running for state House of Representatives District 120 seat might not be as drastic as voters might think, especially given the current political climate.

The choice in this race for some might just come down to political party preference or personal relationship.

Republican candidate Jim Mooney and Democrat opponent Clinton Barras are both vying for the chance to represent the Keys in the state House of Representatives, as current state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, has reached her term limit.

Mooney has the upper hand when it comes to experience, as he has served four terms on the Islamorada Village Council, serving as mayor during some of those terms.

Barras is a political newcomer and has not served in any elected position. He has been on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, serving as chair of that board in his last year.

The winner has several pressing issues he will have to face, including bringing much needed funding for water quality and sea level rise projects, which could cost billions of dollars during the next 10 to 20 years.

The two have found common ground on such controversial issues as gun rules, home rule and state preemption legislation and the need for tweaking the state’s unemployment system. But they differ on how well the governor handled the COVID-19 pandemic in Florida, which could be weighing heavy on the minds of voters this election.

Barras called Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic “criminal.”

“It’s absurd how the Republicans have completely refused to follow science, just like with climate change,” Barras said. “People will die because the governor is refusing to take medical advice. He has allowed it to become a partisan issue.”

He also criticized the governor and the Republican party for the problems with people trying to apply online for unemployment benefits during the pandemic, and how many were unable or delayed weeks by the online application system being overloaded and unable to meet the demand.

Barras cited news articles that had even top-level state Republicans admitting former Republican Gov. Rick Scott intentionally set up the system to be difficult to keep people from enrolling.

Mooney admits the governor’s actions were not perfect but the pandemic was an unprecedented event and the governor did better as time went on, he said.

“The (unemployment) system failed miserably,” Mooney said. “Overall, he did well.”

Mooney and Barras agreed that DeSantis should have continued the agreement with the federal government to extend the extra $600 per-week per-person benefit. Also, they agreed that the state needs to revamp benefits in the future and look at increasing the amount it pays unemployed workers, they said.

Barras and Mooney also found common ground on another issue that Democrats and Republicans have vastly differed on in the past — gun laws. They agreed that a law that allows people to openly carry guns in public and in within 1,000 feet of school should be changed, at least to prohibit open carry of a gun within 1,000 feet of a school.

Last month, a Key West man openly carrying a handgun modified to look like an assault rifle, walked down Truman Avenue and White Street and to the Edward B. Knight Pier to reportedly fish. The man passed within several feet of two schools. State law allows such open carry if a person is transiting to and from a fishing or hunting excursion.

Barras said the state rule allowing Weaver to carry the gun near two schools did not give him “a sense of security,” he said. Barras, who grew up with guns and supports responsible ownership, called for “sensible gun reform.”

“No one wants to take people’s guns away, but there has to be sensible way to have gun control,” Barras said.

Mooney was “appalled” by Weaver’s actions and said “it is not acceptable.” Mooney called the state law that allows such behavior as “archaic.” Such open-carry activities should be allowed in rural settings where hunting is conducted.

“This was not what the Second Amendment was meant for,” Mooney said of Key West incident. “I think this needs to be addressed.”

Mooney and Barras also agreed the next Keys state representative needs to do more to bring more funding for mental health services for children and possibly have the state help fund a Baker Act facility or unit for children in the Keys. Currently, the Keys does not have a Baker Act facility for people under the age of 18. Children who been taken into custody under the Baker Act are currently sent to Miami-Dade or Broward County.

“Every child needs a balanced field and every child needs a chance,” Mooney said “It is very important to take care of children first and us second.”

Mooney called Monroe County a “donor county” when it comes to bringing sales tax to the state budget. Mental health services for children would be one of the first expenses he would ask the state to return some of that sales tax money back for, he said.

“The system is set up so people don’t get the care they need until after they commit a crime and that’s really unfortunate,” Barras said. “I would like to invest across the state more into mental health care. As the parent of two adolescent daughters, I can just imagine how heartbreaking that would be if one of my children had to be shipped up to Miami-Dade to a facility because there wasn’t anything closer by. Absolutely I would try to secure funding for something of that nature.”

The two differ on their reasons for running.

Barras is running because he is frustrated and disappointed at the government on a state level and how it is being run by special interest groups and their lobbyists, he said.

“I don’t think that this is in the best interest of the people,” Barras said. “If not me, then who? And if not now, then when,” he said of running for office.

Mooney wanted to continue the good work Rep. Raschein has done in bringing down millions of dollars in water quality funds, he said. Mooney has been endorsed by Raschein.

“I don’t want Holly’s efforts to get lost in transition,” Mooney said. “As a freshman, I don’t plan to just stand in the back of the room. ... The county needs someone in Tallahassee who knows the issues. This place has been good to me and my family and I want to make it a better place. I’m the best qualified guy.”

The two will face off in the Nov. 3 general election. Early voting starts Monday, Oct. 19.

tohara@keysnews.com


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New cultural fest proposed for Key West

Hoping to create a regular festival celebrating the diverse Caribbean origins of early Key West settlers, as well as create an ongoing economic opportunity for residents and organizations centered in Bahama Village, a new Carnival-type celebration is gearing up for a post-COVID launch, possibly on St. Patrick’s Day weekend next March.

Called Key West Welcome Fest, the proposal is being headed up by Bahama Village resident Veronica Stafford. She outlined her team’s vision recently, laying out plans for a two-day “family event” that would take place four times a year, focusing on the music, dance, food and culture of the Caribbean Islands. Stafford recently asked city commissioners to give the go-ahead to the event and possibly contribute to security costs for the festival and the quarterly Carnival-type street parade.

“You don’t hear steel drums [in Key West]. You don’t hear Cuban music. You don’t see Junkanoo [African street parade]. You don’t see Moka Jumbie [Caribbean stilt walking],” Stafford said. “If you walk down Duval Street, you very seldom hear Caribbean music or see Caribbean culture.”

Welcome Fest will be a participatory event, she said, where tourists and residents come together to learn how to play Caribbean musical instruments and create elaborate costumes to march and dance in a traditional Carnival parade. Key West schools will be asked to offer their students classes on traditional costume making and music from the different Caribbean islands, which they can then teach tourists, culminating in performances at the Key West Carnival.

“We’re not just putting on an event for people to come and eat meat on a stick,” Stafford said. “Each island has their own version of what Caribbean culture is and what Carnival is. We want to being a little bit of everything here and make that a tourism product.”

In addition to promoting and preserving the Caribbean Island culture of Key West’s earliest residents, Stafford said an equally important goal of Welcome Fest is to provide an on-going economic opportunity for the residents, churches and community groups that support the Bahama Village population. Stafford has been a long-time critic of other local festivals, particularly Goombay, a Bahamian-focused street and performance festival that kicks off Fantasy Fest every year, where she said non-local organizers and vendors take the lion’s share of the revenue generated at the festival.

Welcome Fest, while inviting some vendors from the mainland, will involve more local residents in the revenue-producing events, including attracting sponsors, renting booths along the street to local vendors and selling costumes. Welcome Fest will reach out to tourists during the week before Welcome Fest and help them create their costume for the parade. The costumes will be for sale and prices will range from about $70 up to $2,000, Stafford said.

“We want to get the money that comes from the events to stay in the community. There must be a way for us to sell and the money come back to our people. That’s our goal,” she said.

In addition to developing ongoing economic opportunities, Stafford’s team believes Welcome Fest will help Key West recover from the coronavirus pandemic, which has closed dozens of local businesses because of the drop in tourists. Diversifying the number and types of special events will attract more visitors, Stafford said.

“Our goal is to start small but work toward our grand vision to make Welcome Fest one of the Keys’ premier attractions over the next few years and sustain itself for decades,” Stafford told city commissioners recently, asking for their help paying for event security costs. When some commissioners balked at contributing taxpayer money to the event, Stafford said Welcome Fest is prepared to pay for all security costs, if necessary.

“We are already speaking to sponsors,” she told the commission. “We don’t foresee that we will put a major burden on the city.”

Mayor Teri Johnston said the city has some logistics questions that need to be answered first but promised to put the proposal on a future agenda for a vote. Commissioner Sam Kaufman appeared receptive to the idea of Welcome Fest, as well.

“I think we know what we’re talking about: how many people are you expecting? What [would] the costs would really be? I think you’ll find we’re going to support you,” he said.

Commissioner Clayton Lopez, who represents the Bahama Village Dist. 6 neighbor, said he would like to tie Welcome Fest and Petronia Street to the planned revitalization of Duval Street. While four times a year may be too often, he said he supported the idea of creating a revenue-producing event that would benefit the neighborhood.

“The original settlers [in Key West] were from the Bahamas and Cuba. But many of the other islands have contributed to the indigenous population, as well,” Lopez said. “As far as a proposal, it’s great. It’s something I would like to see.”

Stafford was part of a Bahama Village group that revived the almost-dormant Goombay festival in 1992. However, Stafford split with that organizing committee, the Key West Goombay Festival, a few years later. She created a competing organization, Florida Keys Performing Arts, that asked city officials to give it control over Goombay, creating a contentious dispute in 2017 over which team would receive the city’s go-ahead to produce the event. Stafford’s group lost their bid at that time.

Since then, however, city officials split Goombay between the two organizations, Stafford said, with her group taking over Goombay operations for three years beginning in 2021.

psowers@keysnews.com


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State Senate Dist. 39 hopefuls talk Keys priorities

Candidates seeking the state Senate District 39 seat have ramped up efforts entering the final leg of the closely watched race.

Seat 39, which represents residents from Monroe County and parts of southern and western Miami-Dade County, is being vacated by term-limited Republican Anitere Flores.

This is one of the most highly contested races among the districts. The Republican Party has held a majority of the state Senate’s 40 districts since 1995.

State Rep. Javier Fernandez, D-Coral Gables, is attempting to prevent state Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Miami, from keeping the seat in Republican hands.

Fernandez is an attorney and former lobbyist, while Rodriguez has been a realty and hospital lobbyist.

Both candidates say they have ramped up canvassing efforts and making phone calls.

“Of course from a healthy distance,” Fernandez said. “And the response is favorable. Our fundraising has been strong and preliminary polling results shows I’m in the lead.”

Rodriguez said that it’s been challenging going door to door wearing a mask.

“I’m knocking on about 100 doors a day,” she said.

Both candidates currently reside outside the district but have either moved or are in the process of moving within district boundaries.

Fernandez, who has rented an apartment in Tavernier, said that securing state Stewardship funding awarded to Monroe County to clean up nearshore waters that was vetoed last year remains critical.

“What we need is funding predictability,” he said. “I will propose it to be recurring from the Land Acquisition Fund budget so that the county can plan to match dollars and accelerate projects.”

Rodriguez, who is in the process of selling her home outside the district, pledged to make the environment a top priority.

“Monroe County has done an incredible job going from septic to central sewer,” she said. “We have funded water projects for Everglades restoration to combat blue-green algae and red tide. I don’t know what our budget shortfalls will be due to the COVID-19 pandemic but I will prioritize to fully fund the environmental sector.”

There are areas in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties that are susceptible to rising seas and tidal flooding. Both candidates have a plan.

“One thing is serious is that both counties need to protect its taxpayers’ base,” Fernandez said. “My goal is to get the state to take out a loan. It’s the right time given how cheap the interest rates are. We need to budget this as a line item in recurring revenues, Florida Forever possibly or general fund sources. Rather than wait to do this piecemeal, we’ll have it set aside to do this at all levels across government.”

Rodriguez too said mitigating flooding is one of her priorities.

“This is something that has to be addressed and funded. There are other things that can be cut from the budget to help fund projects to combat flooding,” she said.

Rodriguez pointed to her support as a state representative for other Keys projects.

“I sponsored a funding bill that would bring $500,000 to the Stock Island desalination plant, but was vetoed due to COVID,” she said. “I will continue to work hard and secure funding. I anticipate things will stabilize as the economy opens back up. I also secured $1 million for the Habitat for Humanity of the Upper Keys Windley Key project and proposed $200,000 in appropriations to the Dolphin Research Center.”

Rodriguez and Fernandez differ on South Florida’s, particularly Florida City’s, rate of growth and its impact to Monroe County’s hurricane evacuation time.

“This cumulative growth over time begins to tax roadways, and when added all up, degrade evacuation time,” Fernandez said. “I’m a proponent of reinstating a Regional Planning Council to make sure cities and counties don’t overgrow. Developments of a certain threshold no longer require a state overview of the capacity to make sure we have the infrastructure in place to support the growth. We need someone reviewing local city growth.”

Rodriguez said Florida City’s growth will not bottleneck the Keys’ evacuation time.

“While there has been a lot of development in Homestead, South Dade and even the Keys, there is the Turnpike, Krome Avenue and U.S. 1 as evacuation routes. Even though there has been large growth, there are numerous routes to head north. It’s manageable. There’s no impact to the leaving time,” she said.

Florida’s unemployment system, laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, is among Rodriguez’s top issues.

The state offers a maximum of $275 a week, based on earnings, for up to 12 weeks, which is among the lowest in the nation.

“Our unemployment situation is weak. The amount that we pay per week is unacceptable,” she said. “The cost of living in South Florida is not aligned. It’s been way too long since it’s been revised. The accessibility in the beginning of the pandemic was horrific. We need to do better. We need to transition to a higher dollar amount and make the system more user friendly.”

Fernandez too said he’d like to overhaul the system.

“People don’t have access to healthcare for their families. As we move to reopening, we need to modernize unemployment. Employees don’t have time off if they’re affected by COVID. There needs to be some level of a paid benefit to help us not to the spread this disease. This is an issue I want to put on the table,” he said.

Affordable housing is another area of concern, and Fernandez says home rule is part of the solution, not state mandates that protect transient rentals.

“Inventory is tight,” Fernandez said. “I see just how much short-term rentals are driving up the cost. Local communities need to set their own rules on short-term rentals.”

Fernandez is critical his opponent for running on a “national narrative” that has nothing to do with a state Senate race.

“As senators, we don’t defund city police departments. We don’t oversee their city budgets. She should know better,” he said.

Rodriguez said maintaining safety within the communities and making sure people have adequate resources for safety are part of a state senator’s responsibilities.

“Make sure our communities are supported with the resources they need,” she said.

Celso D. Alfonso, who is running with no party affiliation, could not be reached for comment.

This story has been updated to identify Javier Fernandez as a former lobbyist.