28 October 2005

Florida Keys to reopen to visitors on Friday

The Florida Keys are slated to reopen to visitors Friday, after tourists were evacuated more than a week ago due to Hurricane Wilma.

Keys government officials conferred with representatives of the tourism industry Wednesday to make the decision.

Visitors who have reservations should check with lodging facilities in advance, prior to traveling to the Keys, to ensure operational status. Landscaping at some resorts has been significantly impacted and some attractions and ancillary visitor offerings may need more time before they can service visitors.

Hurricane Wilma passed over the island chain Monday morning. Although, Wilma's winds left little structural damage, several residential regions were hit hard by storm surge, emergency management officials said.

Although flooding has receded in affected areas, many residents are busy cleaning up their homes and trying to get their personal lives back together. The hardest hit areas seem to be in a number of residential neighborhoods from Marathon through Key West.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials. as well as other relief workers, are arriving in the Keys to provide assistance.

Fortunately, officials say many Keys hotels and visitor facilities have quickly recovered and are opening for business, something that is pertinent to the area's tourism-based economy. Tourism interests have already lost an estimated $40 million in sales since the visitor evacuation, according to Florida state sales tax figures.

"While we understand there is devastation in some areas, we must ensure our employees here are able to earn a paycheck," said Joy Smatt, chair of the Florida Keys and Key West Lodging Association. "And we still have areas of the Keys that look much like they did before Wilma."

Although there is still evidence of hurricane damage, such as downed trees and other debris, tremendous progress has been made to restore infrastructure.

  • The Overseas Highway from mainland South Florida is open and traffic is flowing without obstructions. There is fuel, but it is limited in some areas of the Keys and very limited in areas of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Fuel supplies are expected to improve as electricity is restored to power gas station pumps in those counties.

  • There has been tremendous progress with restoration of electricity in the Keys. The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative, that services the Upper and Middle Keys, is reporting about 28,000 of 31,000 of their customers that have been restored as of Wednesday afternoon, according to CEO Tim Planer. Keys Energy Services spokeswoman Lynne Tejeda estimates almost 26,000 of the company's 28,000 accounts in the Lower Keys and Key West are now with power.

  • All three major Florida Keys hospitals are open.

  • Florida Keys Marathon Airport is open to general aviation during daylight hours only and Key West International Airport is expected to resume commercial air service Friday, said airport director Peter Horton.

  • One of three piers at the Key West Cruise Port is damaged, but the other two survived. Cruise ships are expected to begin returning to Key West next Tuesday.

  • Curfews, in effect in the Keys since the storm, have been discontinued according to law enforcement officials.

  • A precautionary boil-water order, in effect since Wilma's passage, is expected to be lifted Friday, according to officials with the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority.

    "We've made cleanup of Duval Street and other primary tourist areas in Key West a priority," said Key West City Manager Julio Avael. "We are doing our best to take care of the needs of our residents who have suffered, while maintaining the economic lifeblood of our community."

    Some hotels in the Upper Keys are making special rates available to hurricane-affected residents in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Proof of residency is required. For information, contact the Key Largo and Islamorada Chambers of Commerce respectively at 1-800-822-1088 and 1-800-FAB-KEYS.

    Key West Fantasy Fest organizers have announced the new dates for the 2005 event that was postponed due to Wilma. The event is scheduled for Dec. 7-10 and its theme has been slightly adapted to now be called "Wilma's Freaks, Geeks & Goddesses."

    For more information on the Keys, call 1-800-FLA-KEYS or visit www.fla-keys.com where a more detailed destination status is to be posted.

    Source: www.divenewswire.com


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