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Key West on lockdown as Irma approaches

September 9, 2017 at 4:38 PM EDT
The Florida Keys are home to tens of thousands of residents who were ordered to evacuate days ago as Hurricane Irma approaches the state. The city of Key West is squarely in the hurricane’s path -- but Key West Mayor Craig Cates stayed behind to help manage last-resort shelters. Cates joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype.

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: The southernmost part of Florida and the United States is Key West, and it’s currently in Irma’s direct path. The keys are a group of small islands connected by bridges, and they’re closer to Havana than Miami. Some 80,000 residents were ordered three days ago to evacuate.

But staying behind is Craig Cates. He’s been the mayor of Key West since 2009, and joins me now on the phone.

First, Mayor, the decision to stay, why stay?

MAYOR CRAIG CATES, KEY WEST, FLORIDA (via telephone): Well, you know, we had to be here after the storm, and we want to make sure we were here right to — at least right up to the storm where we could tell all the residents to keep them going into shelters. We open shelters at the last minute here. And we put a lot of residents in there, and we just need to be here to make sure that we do everything we can for our citizens and their properties.

SREENIVASAN: You know, we spoke to you a few days ago, and you were trying to make sure that people evacuated, got out to the mainland, perhaps to Miami. Now, you’re saying there are some residents that decided to stay, and how many people are with you in these shelters?

CATES: Well, we think that maybe less than 20 percent of the city stayed. There’s 25,000 permanent residents. So, a lot of them in the shelters now.

We don’t have exact numbers, but we have three shelters open right now, but there are a lot of people in them. And a lot of people didn’t have transportation. We ran, you know, 16 buses to Miami for two days to get residents out, but not everybody could get on there.

So, the ones that stayed thought it was going to be OK, and then they got nervous at the last minute. That’s the way people are sometimes. And so, those are the ones that are going to the shelters.

SREENIVASAN: Now, how susceptible are you to the type of storm surge numbers that we’re seeing predicted?

CATES: Well, it depends on what direction it comes from. Our local service, National Weather Service, is saying it won’t have as large an impact with flooding as we had with Wilma, which did a lot of damage back in 2005. Some areas will get flooded, but we’re looking that it’s not going to be near as bad as that.

But the problem is the wind, and this storm is going to be a wind event for us, mainly. And, you know, we’ve got a lot of boats all through the Keys and Key West and the harbors. They’re secured. We’re afraid they’ll be damaged pretty bad.

And — but the structures, we’re hoping that we’re not going to get that much structural damage because of the ways the buildings are built. Obviously, they’ll be out a bit, but we don’t believe you’ll see the damage here that you see in other places because of the construction.

SREENIVASAN: And you mentioned that you had bussed people out of the keys up into Miami. Where are they now? Are they all safe in a shelter there?

CATES: Yes. Florida International University is our Monroe County shelter out of the Keys. And we’ve bussed many people there, or they could have drove themselves and went there, a lot of people drove up there, or a lot of people kept going, as you know, as they keep evacuating. But the ones that were bussed up there will have to stay there. It’s — I believe it’s a category 5 building with no chance of flooding. So, that’s a safe haven for our residents.

SREENIVASAN: Mayor, what’s your biggest concern now? I know you said you’re concerned about the wind. This will be more of a wind event for you. But over the next 24, 48 hours, as this storm moves across your islands?

CATES: Well, our big concern is that we closed our hospital. They evacuated. So, we have no E.R., no hospital. So, if anybody gets injured, we have no way to help them.

So, obviously, we will not be sending our first responders out in this kind of weather to take a chance of them being hurt. So, we’ll have 911 calls. If we have them, we’ll be recording them and write them down, but we won’t be able to go out and help them until after the storm. That’s my biggest concern.

SREENIVASAN: All right. I hope you don’t have too many of those. Mayor Craig Cates joining us from Key West tonight — thanks so much.

CATES: All right. Thank you for having me.