The Lower Florida Keys experienced significant flooding and wind damage on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning as Hurricane Ian skirted the islands, bringing tropical force storm winds and several feet of storm surge.
Trees and power lines were downed, boats littered the shorelines and nearly 10,000 homes and businesses lost power.
Monroe County School District officials plan to keep schools closed on Thursday, School District Superintendent Theresa Axford said. Monroe County government plans to keeps its offices closed Thursday as well.
The island chain was expected to experience another round of storm-related flooding Wednesday afternoon as Hurricane Ian was bearing down on mainland Florida.
High tide in Key West Harbor occurred at about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, and with the storm continuing to track north and east, more significant storm surge was expected to further douse the Keys.
The Lower Keys experienced severe flooding from Hurricane Ian on Tuesday night and into Wednesday, with at least 50 homes in Key West reported to be uninhabitable as of late Wednesday morning. The number of homes damaged was expected to grow, according to Greg Barroso, emergency manager for the City of Key West.
The City of Marathon and the Monroe County government issued advisories Wednesday warning of additional storm surge.
Widespread storm surge flooding originating from the Gulf of Mexico side of 2 to 4 feet above normal high tide levels was expected from Key West through Big Pine Key, according to county officials.
"For several islands, this may allow the storm surge to pass over from gulfside to oceanside," the county advisory stated. "The peak storm surge levels will likely occur from sometime after noon into late afternoon. Many streets will become impassable with water into the ground floor of some homes and businesses, especially those in lower elevation areas."
A storm surge watch remained in effect for the Middle and Upper Keys, from Marathon through the Ocean Reef Club, as well as islands east of Big Pine Key. Storm surge flooding 1 to 3 feet above normal high tides was possible, according to the county.
The highest storm surge for the gulfside of the Middle Keys was expected during the afternoon hours of Wednesday, with the storm surge on Florida Bay in the Upper Keys gradually peaking Thursday through Friday.
Marathon experienced oceanside street flooding in some low-lying areas late Tuesday night, particularly on streets between Vaca Cut and Sombrero Beach Road. There were no reported widespread power outages in the Middle Keys Wednesday morning and no emergency calls related to the storm, according to Marathon officials.
Keys Energy Services (KEYS) reported about 9,958 customers had lost power overnight after crews stood down from responding to Hurricane Ian-related outages due to unsafe working conditions, KEYS spokesman Julio Torrado said Wednesday morning.
"The current plan is for crews to perform a systemwide assessment at daybreak to verify outage locations and begin restoration work, weather permitting," Torrado said Wednesday. "An anticipated midday storm surge will hamper restoration efforts. Crews will do as much work as possible before the surge, and continue power restoration again once conditions permit."
The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative, which provides electricity north of the Seven-Mile Bridge, reported several small sporadic power outages.
The City of Key West reported more than a dozen live-aboard boats had broken free of their anchors or moorings and washed ashore. The Naval Air Station Key West reported about six boats that had broken free had wound up on Navy property.
Key West officials requested the county keep open the shelter at Key West High School because of the weather conditions and damage to people's homes and live-aboard boats. The general population shelter at Key West High School will close at noon on Thursday. On Tuesday night, 118 people used the shelter as a safe haven during Hurricane Ian, according to the county spokeswoman Kristen Livengood.
In addition to flooding downed trees and power lines, a major structure fire broke out Wednesday morning in a 16-unit apartment/business complex on Flagler Avenue.
Firefighters were called to the fire at the commercial building at 3201 Flagler Ave. at about 6 a.m. Wednesday, City of Key West spokeswoman Alyson Crean said. The building houses businesses on the first floor and apartments on the second floor. Crean did not have details or the cause of the blaze as of Wednesday morning.
Hurricane Ian prompted Naval Air Station Key West to evacuate 61 Navy personnel and families.
At 10 p.m., NAS Key West emergency responders evacuated 61 residents from base housing to Navy Gateway Inns & Suites after a higher-than-forecast storm surge unexpectedly flooded homes on the Truman Annex. Navy Federal Firefighters and first responders assisted with the evacuation.
Capt. Beth Regoli, commanding officer of NAS Key West, later issued a mandatory evacuation for low-lying areas in Sigsbee Park housing due to high tide and storm surge anticipated today between 12 to 4 p.m. on the Gulf side of the installation. Emergency accommodations were made available for displaced residents at Fly Navy-Navy Gateway Inns & Suites.
"The safety of our Navy personnel and their families is my top priority,” Capt. Regoli said. “We will continue to direct all resources possible toward the safe relocation and emergency assistance for those displaced by Hurricane Ian.”
As of Wednesday morning, the local governments and Monroe County School District had not made any decisions about reopening offices and schools. Sports at Key West High are likely not to occur this week, according to Conchs athletic director Justin Martin, who said post-storm conditions would determine when the teams are able to return to practice. Coral Shores athletic director Rich Russell stated the only game not canceled as of Wednesday afternoon was the football contest against Ransom Everglades, but added "I think there is a strong likelihood that will be canceled as well."
Key West International Airport suffered damage in the hurricane and remained closed to commercial airline service on Wednesday, County Airports Director Richard Strickland said.
"We have about 16 to 20 hours of work before we can get it back up and running," Strickland said Wednesday.
The highest wind gust recorded was nearly 100 mph, according to Jon Rizzo, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Key West.
Key West Mayor Teri Johnston was pleased with the city's response, she said.
“Our city certainly fared better than many Florida communities due to collaboration with our counterparts and having a solid plan,” Johnston said. “Communication between all departments (and with the county and EOC) was timely and consistent.”
Johnston said that although the city experienced a higher than expected storm surge, cleanup started early and power is being restored throughout the island chain.
“Please allow our crews and first responders to get out streets cleared and drained and emergencies addressed by staying in your homes unless it is necessary to venture out!” said Johnston. “ Although all weather events are of great concern, we are fortunate in many ways.”
Midtown resident Susan Campbell went on a sort of ad hoc rescue mission this morning around 9 a.m. to pick up friends stuck by flooding around Ashby and Laird streets in Old Town.
“We picked them up, and the water was up to our knees,” Campbell said. “Then we saw a nice older lady named Valentina, trying to get home from her caretaker's job. She needed a ride, and we helped out.”
From there, Campbell noticed a family with an infant in hand and another child stuck with no way out.
“They needed help, so we put them in the bed of our truck and got them out to safety.”
Campbell, who lives on Lake McKillip behind Winn-Dixie grocery store, said she wasn’t sure they could help tonight.
“We are very concerned about this storm surge predicted for this afternoon,” she said. “We are staying close to home.”
On the water, things were equally as disturbing.
The mooring field behind Beachside Marriott lost more than a dozen boats, including one by Campbell’s friend David Myers.
“He broke free and drifted through the night over to about one mile north of Fleming Key,” said Campbell. “He sank but drifted aground and is standing on his bed awaiting help from the Coast Guard.”
From Key West to Shark Key, dozens of other vessels broke free during the storm. Some, like the Dream Catcher, a larger live-aboard boat, drifted up onto the right-of-way along U.S. 1. There were similar stories from Key West Harbor.
As of Wednesday morning, Hurricane Ian was in the Gulf of Mexico just off the southwest coast of Florida near Fort Myers, packing 155 mph winds and moving at 9 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.