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Associated Press

Florida Keys launches $1 million emergency tourism campaign

The tourism promotion agency for the Florida Keys is initiating a $1 million emergency ad campaign to attract visitors back to the island chain following Hurricane Irma.

Keys tourism officials released details Friday.

The ad campaign promotes the theme “We Are 1,” referring to U.S. Highway 1, the Florida Keys Overseas Highway that runs throughout the Keys. It’s being supplemented by sales and public relations efforts to protect the winter tourism season.

Officials say they recognize not all Keys tourism offerings have recovered but added the industry employs about half the Keys’ workforce, and it’s important to have cash flow in the economy.

The campaign includes television, radio, digital, print and travel trade media in domestic markets. International markets include the United Kingdom, Germany and Scandinavia.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Ex-lawmaker Erik Fresen gets 60 days’ jail, probation in tax case

Former Florida state Rep. Erik Fresen has been sentenced to 60 days in jail and a year’s probation for failing to file a 2011 federal tax return.

A Miami federal judge imposed the sentence Friday. Fresen pleaded guilty in April to the single charge, which involved failing to report about $270,000 in income. Court records show the jail term will be broken into four chunks of 15 days each within the one year of probation.

Defense attorney Jeff Neiman says in court papers Fresen has repaid his back taxes. His lawyers wanted no jail time.

Fresen, a Republican, represented a Miami-area district in the state House from 2008 to 2016. Court records show he didn’t file tax returns for any of those years but pleaded guilty to 2011 only.

Yellow wristbands, segregation for Florida homeless in Irma

Shelby Hoogendyk says that when she, her husband and her 17-month-old son arrived at an emergency shelter as Hurricane Irma closed in, they were separated from others by yellow wristbands and told to stay in an area with other people like them – the homeless.

Sheriff’s deputies, she says, told them the wristbands were prompted by problems that arose among homeless people at the shelter during Hurricane Matthew a year earlier.

“We were treated like we were guilty criminals,” Hoogendyk says.

In the storm’s wake, homeless people and their advocates are complaining that some of them were turned away, segregated from the others, denied cots and food, deprived of medication refills and doctors’ visits, or otherwise ill-treated during the evacuation.

Many of the complaints have been blamed on misunderstandings, the sheer magnitude of the disaster, the crush of people needing shelter immediately, or inadequate state and local emergency planning.

All told, a record 72,000 Floridians sought refuge from the hurricane in early September at nearly 400 shelters. The response varied widely by county.

In Miami, over 700 homeless were picked up and taken to shelters. In Collier County, the sheriff sent officers into homeless encampments in the woods to bring people to a shelter. But in Polk County, Sheriff Grady Judd warned that any evacuees with warrants against them and all sex offenders seeking shelter would be taken to jail. And in Volusia County, some officials were accused of turning homeless evacuees away from shelters without explanation.

“Communities were all dealing with the fallout of not having very comprehensive planning in place to deal with this population,” said Kirsten Anderson, litigation director at Southern Legal Counsel, a nonprofit public interest law firm in Florida.

She said if a shelter discriminated against people based on their economic status, it could be a violation of federal law that protects people in federal disaster zones.

In Hoogendyk’s case, St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar and school officials who ran the shelter at Pedro Menendez High vigorously denied segregating the homeless, saying the yellow wristbands were simply used to identify people with “special needs” – substance abuse problems, mental illness or other “frailties” – who needed to be closer to the bathrooms.

But Hoogendyk said neither she nor her husband claimed any special needs when they checked in. Other homeless people said they, too, were automatically issued the yellow wristbands, while others around them got blue or other colors denoting them as part of the “general population.”

Gary Usry, a 57-year-old homeless man who arrived at the same St. Augustine shelter, said the first night was rough.

“We were left on concrete floor overnight. No blanket, no nothing,” he said. Usry said a few cots were provided to people with wristbands of other colors, but not to any of the homeless in his yellow-band section. Usry said he felt “insulted, demeaned.”

While insisting homeless people were not singled out, the sheriff also said that the homeless population has “a disproportionate representation of those with mental illness, substance abuse problems and, quite frankly, those with criminal backgrounds.”

Sheriff’s spokesman Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan said that last year, during Hurricane Matthew, there were numerous arguments, fights and instances of drunkenness among homeless people at the shelter.

Elsewhere around Florida, Robin Williams said she and about 60 others from the homeless-assistance group where she works, the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, spent their first night as evacuees sleeping on a cold, hard gymnasium floor with no cots, blankets or food. The glaring lights stayed on all night, she said.

Over the next few days, the 30 or so special-needs evacuees among them were shuffled to various locations.

Just down the road, hundreds of other evacuees from the Keys rested comfortably with cots, hot meals, free toiletries and showers, Williams said.

“What these people have been through borders on criminal,” she said.

The group’s interim executive director, Stephanie Kaple, said three of her medically fragile clients ended up in the hospital after bouncing from place to place, wondering where they would sleep or if they would be fed. One case was a direct result of the stress, she said.

Kaple said that when she asked why some of her special-needs evacuees were sleeping on the floor, she was told that many of the cots were still being used in Houston, which was ravaged by Hurricane Harvey.

“I think there were places that the ball just got dropped,” she said.

In the county’s defense, Sheryl Graham, a senior director with Monroe County Social Services, said officials got barraged with last-minute requests from hundreds of people asking to be added to the special-needs registry, and it took precious manpower to contact and screen each one to make sure they were assigned to the correct shelter.

Special-needs evacuees are those who require assistance beyond what is provided at an ordinary shelter. Some might use an oxygen tank or wheelchair, for example. Medical assistance, which can include doctors’ visits and medication, must be made available at such shelters. That’s why special-needs evacuees must register beforehand.

But execution seemed to break down during Irma. Kaple said it was not until four days after the storm that her medically needy clients started getting doctors’ visits, medications, showers and regular meals.

Lawanda Tobler, a bus driver for Volusia County who took part in the evacuation efforts, said a shelter at New Smyrna Beach High School refused to take a homeless person when they arrived, offering no other explanation than that he was homeless.

Tobler was then sent to a Salvation Army shelter where they “wouldn’t even open the door and there were over a dozen homeless people at the site looking for shelter,” she said.

Emails and a call to the Salvation Army were not immediately returned.

The Rev. Jeffrey Dove said that after the storm, he headed to New Smyrna Beach’s community center with about 30 homeless evacuees, only to be told by the city manager “we were not welcome.”

When one of the homeless evacuees asked the city manager why they couldn’t eat and shower there, “she looked at him in a very condescending way and stated that he did not pay taxes,” Dove said.

New Smyrna Beach City Manager Pam Brangaccio said Dove’s people were turned away because they included three “unknown homeless men” and because children were there and city maintenance employees were being fed at the time.

She said she and Dove have since apologized to each over after their heated conversation and are now working together to hold a summit on homelessness.

Volusia County spokeswoman Joanne Magley said all those who needed a place were provided with shelter. She said everyone had to produce identification to get in, and those who had no ID or were homeless were sent to separate shelters for the homeless.

“If you don’t have an ID and we can’t do a background check, how do you know if someone is a sex offender?” she said. “You can’t just let anyone into a general population shelter.”

Attorney: ‘No doubt’ OJ Simpson goes to Florida after prison

O.J. Simpson will live in Florida following his parole from a Nevada prison where the former football star and celebrity criminal defendant has been held for the past nine years after a robbery conviction, his lawyer said Friday.

Attorney Malcolm LaVergne didn’t specify where Simpson would live in Florida, although Tom Scotto, a close friend who lives in Naples, Florida, has offered his home.

“He’s going to Florida,” LaVergne said. “There’s no doubt he’s going to Florida.”

Scotto didn’t immediately respond to telephone, email and text messages.

A Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman, Ashley Cook, said her agency has not received a transfer request or documents about Simpson.

Simpson becomes eligible for release Sunday but LaVergne said he doesn’t know where or when it will happen.

He expects to learn more when Simpson notifies him that he is being moved from Lovelock Correctional Center in northern Nevada.

Release plans are in motion but need to be finalized for Simpson to be freed, perhaps as early as Monday in Las Vegas, Nevada prisons official Brooke Keast said.

Citing safety concerns, Keast said Friday the plans were not being made public.

LaVergne said he will begin pressing for answers if Simpson is not free by Oct. 8.

He said he spoke with Simpson by telephone on Thursday, and he is excited about his pending freedom.

“He’s really looking forward to the simple pleasures,” LaVergne said. “Seeing his family on the outside, spending time with them, eating food that’s not packaged.”

Simpson wants to eat steak and seafood and get a new iPhone, LaVergne told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Simpson won parole in July after serving nine years of a possible 33-year sentence for his 2008 conviction on armed robbery, kidnapping and other charges.

The conviction came after a botched effort to retrieve items that Simpson insisted were stolen after his acquittal in the 1994 killings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman in Los Angeles.

Simpson was found liable for their deaths in a civil case in 1997 and ordered to pay the victims’ families $33.5 million.

A Goldman family attorney said the judgment amount has nearly doubled with interest over the years to more than $65 million, and he continues to seek payment.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.


Lawyers: Florida airport shooting suspect still mentally fit

Lawyers for an Alaska man charged with killing five people and wounding six in a Florida airport mass shooting say he remains mentally fit to proceed in the case.

A status hearing is set Thursday in Miami federal court for 27-year-old Esteban Santiago of Anchorage, Alaska, who’s being treated for schizophrenia. His lawyers say in a court filing Santiago’s mental status is unchanged.

Santiago pleaded not guilty to a 22-count indictment in the Jan. 6 shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The Justice Department is considering whether to seek the death penalty in a trial still months away.

After the shooting, the FBI says Santiago told agents he acted under government mind control, then claimed inspiration by the Islamic State extremist group. No terrorism links have been found.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.


School’s back in session for some in the Florida Keys

 The lights flickered off during the lunchtime rush and the principal had to use a cellphone light to make sure everyone got their food, but school is back in session at a Florida school that was a Red Cross shelter after Hurricane Irma.

Wednesday was the second of three staggered school opening dates in Monroe County since Irma ravaged the Florida Keys Sept. 10.

Principal Wendy McPherson tells the Miami Herald it felt “pretty darn good” to return to Marathon Middle and High School.

For many students, being back in school is the only access they have to air conditioning. The free breakfast and lunch may be the only hot meals they’re getting. During first period, students filled out surveys on their needs — clothing, hygiene products and school supplies.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Now even money is running out in hurricane-hit Puerto Rico

First, Hurricane Maria knocked out power and water to Puerto Rico. Then diesel fuel, gas and water became scarce. Now, it’s money.

The aftermath of the powerful storm has resulted in a near-total shutdown of the U.S. territory’s economy that could last for weeks and has many people running seriously low on cash and worrying that it will become even harder to survive on this storm-ravaged island.

There are long lines at the banks that are open with reduced hours or the scattered ATMs that are operational amid an islandwide power outage and near total loss of telecommunications. Many people are unable to work or run their businesses because diesel to run generators is in short supply or they can’t spend all day waiting for gas to fill their car.

Engineer Octavio Cortes predicts it will only get worse because so many of the problems are interconnected and cannot be easily resolved.

“I don’t know how much worse it’s going to get,” Cortes said as he joined other motorists stopping on a bridge over a river in northern Puerto Rico to catch a faint cellphone signal. “Right now it’s manageable, but I don’t know about next week or after that.”

The father of six typically works from home or travels around the world for his job, but neither approach is possible now because the power is still out for nearly all 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico and flights off the island are down to only a few each day.

While Cortes is OK for the moment, others don’t have nearly the same resources.

Cruzita Mojica is an employee of the Puerto Rico Treasury Department in San Juan. While she, like many public-sector workers, has been called back to work she can’t go because she has to care for her elderly mother in the aftermath of the storm. She got up at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday and went to four ATM machines only to find each one empty.

“Of course, I took out money before the hurricane, but it’s gone already,” she said. “We’re without gasoline. Without money. Without food. This is a disaster.”

Surgical technician Dilma Gonzalez said she had only $40 left and her job hasn’t called people back to work yet in the capital. “Until they let us know otherwise, I’m not supposed to go back,” she said with a shrug as she pressure washed the street in front of her house, sending muddy debris flying.

All are struggling with the overwhelming devastation of Hurricane Maria, which began tearing across the island early in the morning of Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm with winds of 155 mph. It destroyed the entire electricity grid while grinding up homes, businesses, roads and farms. At least 16 people were killed. There still is no exact tally of the cost and full extent of the damage, but Gov. Ricardo Rossello says it will bring a complete halt to the economy for at least a month.

“This is the single biggest, major catastrophe in the history of Puerto Rico, bar none, and it is probably the biggest hurricane catastrophe in the United States,” Rossello said Wednesday as he delivered aid to the southern town of Salinas, whose mayor says 100 percent of the agriculture there was wiped out when the wind tore up plantain, corn, vegetables and other crops.

On Thursday the Trump administration announced it was waiving the Jones Act, a little-known federal law that prohibits foreign-flagged ships from shuttling goods between U.S. ports, for Puerto Rico. Republicans and Democrats have pushed for the move, saying it could help get desperately needed supplies to the island more quickly and at less cost.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Twitter that President Donald Trump had “authorized the Jones Act be waived for Puerto Rico” in response to a request from Rossello and that it “will go into effect immediately.”

Antonia Garcia, a retiree who lives in the city of Bayamon, said she was down to her last $4. She spent a day using precious gas to look for an ATM that was in operation because she couldn’t get into her credit union, which was taking only 200 customers a day. “This has become chaotic,” she said.

Puerto Rico was already struggling before the storm. The island has been in a recession for more than a decade, the poverty rate was 45 percent and unemployment was around 10 percent, higher than any U.S. state. Manufacturers of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, which are the most important segment of the economy, have been shedding jobs for years. Now everything from multinational companies to small businesses and ranches are scrambling to get enough fuel to run generators while their employees struggle to even get to work.

Before the storm, the island’s government was in the midst of bitter negotiations with creditors to restructure a portion of its $73 billion in debt, which the previous governor declared unpayable. Rossello appeared to warn the bondholders that the storm had made things worse. “Puerto Rico practically will have no income for the next month,” he told reporters.

Making matters worse for many consumers is the fact that those food stores that are open, typically on reduced hours, are unable to process credit or bank cards or the local system of welfare payments. The businesses are insisting on cash, even though that is technically illegal.

Still, as in any economic crisis, there are people who find the upside. Christian Mendoza said the car wash where he works hasn’t re-opened so he has been selling bottled water, even without refrigeration. “The water hot and it still went like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.

Another relative success story is Elpidio Fernandez, a 78-year-old who sells coconut and passion fruit ice cream from a pushcart on the streets of San Juan and has a supplier with a generator. He has made up to $500 on some days since the storm.

“Business has multiplied by a thousand,” he said, but he quickly added: “Even though I’m doing well, I don’t feel good because I know other people are suffering.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

‘Nothing, nothing.’ Aid lags in hurricane-torn Puerto Rico

Relatives helped Maribel Valentin Espino find shelter when Hurricane Maria roared through her community in northern Puerto Rico. Neighbors formed volunteer brigades to cut fallen trees and clear twisty mountain roads after the storm had passed. Now, friends and a local cattle ranch provide the water they need to survive in the tropical heat.

Valentin and her husband say they have not seen anyone from the Puerto Rican government, much less the Federal Emergency Management Agency, since the storm tore up the island Sept. 20, killing at least 16 people and leaving nearly all 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico without power and most without water.

“People say FEMA is going to help us,” Valentin said Tuesday as she showed Associated Press journalists around the sodden wreckage of her home. “We’re waiting.”

Many others are also waiting for help from anyone from the federal or Puerto Rican government. But the scope of the devastation is so broad, and the relief effort so concentrated in San Juan, that many people from outside the capital say they have received little to no help.

Valentin, her husband and teenage son live in one such area, Montebello, a 20-minute drive into what used to be lushly forested mountains near the northern coastal municipality of Manati. Hurricane Maria’s Category 4 winds stripped the trees bare and scattered them like matchsticks. “It seemed like a monster,” she recalled.

The roads are passable now but the community is still isolated. “Nobody has visited, not from the government, not from the city, no one,” said Antonio Velez, a 64-year-old who has lived there his entire life.

The same complaint echoed throughout the southeast coastal town of Yabucoa, the first town Maria hit as it barreled across the island with 155 mph winds.

“Nothing, nothing, nothing,” said 58-year-old retiree Angel Luis Rodriguez. “I’ve lost everything, and no one has shown up to see if anyone lives here.”

At a nearby river, dozens of people gathered to bathe and wash clothes as they grumbled about the lack of aid.

“There’s been no help from the mayor or from the federal government,” said 64-year-old retiree Maria Rodriguez as she held a coconut in her right hand and took sips from it. “After Georges hit us (in 1998), they responded quickly. But now? Nothing. We need water and food.”

Nearby, one girl engaged in a thumb war with a friend as she filled an empty water bottle with her other hand. Downstream, a woman sat cross-legged in the water behind a friend and helped wash her hair.

The recovery in the first week since the storm has largely been a do-it-yourself affair. People collect water from wells and streams, clear roads and repair their own homes when they are not waiting in daylong lines for gasoline and diesel. For most, the only visible sign of authority are police officers directing traffic, a critical service because traffic lights are out across the island.

“I have seen a lot of helicopters go by. I assume those are people from FEMA,” said Jesus Argilagos, who lives in Manati and works at a grocery store that is only open part of the day because of the power crisis. “People get pissed off because they see them going back and forth and not doing anything.”

There are several thousand U.S. federal employees in Puerto Rico helping with the recovery effort. They are most visible in San Juan, where officials with FEMA, Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection have a presence at hotels that before the storm served tourists in the Condado neighborhood or at the convention center that has become a staging ground for relief efforts.

Federal workers supplied diesel to generators at hospitals and delivered desperately needed food and water to hard-hit communities across the island. They have repaired the air traffic control systems and power at the airport, which is far from normal operations with only about a dozen commercial flights per day. U.S. agents have also provided security across the island and the Coast Guard has worked with local authorities to restore the sea ports, a vital link because Puerto Rico is almost completely dependent on imports.

In addition, teams from the Army Corps of Engineers are helping to repair the electricity grid and to inspect and look for ways to avert the collapse of a dam near the western town of Quebradillas that has developed a crack and that officials have said could potentially fail. And personnel from Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs have provided care and helped evacuate people from Puerto Rico with chronic medical conditions.

Teams also were scheduled to visit the central mountain town of Aibonito, which was cut off from the rest of the island for five days. Many people began rationing their food and water supplies as they dwindled, unclear of when they would have contact with the outside world.

“We thought somebody was going to stop by,” said Ana Lidia Mendoza, a 48-year-old cook at a barbecue restaurant who lost part of her roof. “They told us that we had to stay calm.”

Gov. Ricardo Rossello and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, the island’s representative in Congress, have said they intend to seek more than a billion dollars in federal assistance and they have praised the response to the disaster by President Donald Trump, who plans to visit Puerto Rico next week, as well as FEMA Administrator Brock Long.

“I am confident that they understand the seriousness of the situation,” the governor said Tuesday.

Still, it is hard to avoid the fact that the response looks different than previous ones. After hurricanes in Louisiana, Texas and Florida, waves of power company trucks from other states descended in long convoys, something that is obviously not possible on an island 1,000 miles to the southeast of the mainland. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, the U.S. military sent ships and the skies seemed to be filled with heavy-lift helicopters and planes carrying emergency relief, though the scale of that disaster was far worse.

Hurricane Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 100 years and officials say the cost of recovery will dwarf that of the punishing Hurricane Georges in 1998. Whatever the final bill, Valentin just hopes it will factor in people like her. “If FEMA helps us, we are going to build again,” she said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Insurers request steep premium hikes for Florida, but Obamacare subsidies may offset the impact

Premiums for health care plans sold on the Affordable Care Act’s federal exchange and outside the exchange will rise an average of 45 percent in Florida this year, according to state officials. However that doesn’t mean consumers will end up spending more money. In fact, they could end up seeing slight decreases.

Florida’s Office of Insurance Regulation released the figures Tuesday for the six health insurers who will sell “Obamacare” plans on the federal marketplace. The news comes as major insurers around the country have pulled out of the market amid dismal profits and growing uncertainty under President Donald Trump‘s administration.

But Florida Blue is offering plans in all 67 counties and is the sole provider in several mostly rural counties, largely in the Panhandle and along the Florida-Georgia border. In highly populated counties like Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange, residents will have several plans to choose from.

All six insurers requested large double-digit rate hikes. The state has the power to negotiate those rates down to a lower price. The lowest increase went to Florida Health Care Plan Inc. with 26.5 percent, and the highest — 71 percent — went to Molina Healthcare of Florida, Inc., according to data from state insurance officials.

Rates can be tricky to understand without context. Last year, for example, the average monthly premium with Florida Blue was $525. This year it jumps to $725. But those figures don’t include subsidies given by the federal government to help consumers pay for their plans. When premiums increase, the subsidies also increase.

The plans fall into four categories: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Consumers who choose bronze plans pay the lowest monthly premiums, but the most for care. Those with platinum plans have the highest monthly premiums, but the lowest cost of care.

“Most consumers with the silver plans will not see an out-of-pocket change, as the federal premium subsidy will also increase to absorb this extra cost,” state insurance officials said in a press release.

According to their data, a family of four earning $53,000, as well as an individual earning $27,000, may see a slight decrease in their out-of-pocket health insurance premium in 2018.

The Sunshine State has led the country in enrollment on the Affordable Care Act exchange with nearly 1.7 million consumers. About 75 percent of those consumers received funds to help pay for their insurance, according to the federal government.

On Twitter and in interviews, Trump has threatened to give Obamacare a nudge by cutting off payments to precipitate a crisis that would force Congress to act. The loss would have a huge effect on insurers who would have to absorb the hit. Earlier this year, Florida Blue warned that its rates would increase by an additional 20 percent on average across the state without the cost-sharing reductions.

Some experts say the Trump administration is responsible for a large share of the rate hikes.

This November marks the first time that enrollment in President Barack Obama’s signature law will begin under Trump, who campaigned on abolishing the law and has repeatedly said it’s in a death spiral. He and congressional Republicans have been unable to deliver on their promise to “repeal and replace” the 2010 health care law.

But Trump recently cut funding for navigators who counsel people about various plans and help them enroll, slashing the navigator budget 40 percent from $62.5 million for 2017, to $36.8 million for next year. Trump is also reducing the funds that pay for advertising during open enrollment. Advertising will be cut from $100 million spent on 2017 sign-ups to $10 million, said Health and Human Services officials.

Because of these cuts in advertising and enrollment assistance, those who end up signing up for coverage are more likely to be people who desperately need the insurance, said John Holahan, an economist with the Urban Institute.

“This will drive up the risk pool, so premiums will go up,” Holahan said.

Meanwhile, under the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Florida insurance officials are reminding consumers who don’t qualify for funding assistance that they can purchase insurance outside the federal exchange. But those premiums also increased in the market by an average of 18 percent.

In 2013, an unsubsidized plan comparable to an existing silver plan would cost a family of four an average of $7,200, according to the state. In 2018, the average unsubsidized cost for the same family totals $17,000.

1st cruise ship since Irma docks in Key West

Royal Caribbean International’s Empress of the Seas, with 878 passengers and about 600 crew members, docked in Key West Sunday marking the first cruise ship visit since before Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys Sept. 10.

Officials said resuming cruise ship port calls is significant for the region’s economy, and vital for residents whose livelihood depends on serving visitors.

“Being a tourist-based economy, we need our visitors to come to town, and that is our primary economy,” said Key West Mayor Craig Cates, who was on hand to welcome passengers and ship officers. “They come here to see our beautiful resources, our beautiful town and architecture — and the servers, the bartenders, the hostesses, everybody, depends on them.

“The people need to go back to work, and this is a huge part of our recovery,” Cates said.

Keys county and tourism officials are to meet Monday to discuss formal opening dates for visitors to return to the Keys. Electric and water restoration is almost complete.

In addition to the port, Key West International Airport has reopened for commercial service. Officials say most hotels and visitor facilities in Key West have recovered and are resuming normal operations.

Still, some attractions and businesses were still closed in Key West Sunday, such as the Hemingway Home and Museum. One of the top attractions in the Keys, the one-time residence of Ernest Hemingway is still undergoing landscaping cleanup, but suffered no structural impacts and all of the property’s six-toed cats are well, according to Mike Morawski, who runs the museum.

While Hurricane Irma caused varying degrees of damage along the 125-mile Florida Keys island chain, Key West and the northernmost island of Key Largo reported the fewest impacts.

A number of Keys special events scheduled for mid to late October — including Key West’s Fantasy Fest, Marathon’s Stone Crab Eating Contest and Key Largo’s Humphrey Bogart Film Festival — are to take place as planned, according to organizers.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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