Wading into the waist-deep storm surge from Hurricane Ike members of the Florida Army National Guard helped local law enforcement officers avert what could have been a disaster for some people ignoring safety warnings.
As high waves and strong surf from the hurricane buffeted Key West, the soldiers from 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group, were examining the White Street Fishing Pier on the south shore of the city when they noticed about 40 people swimming and playing at the flooded end of the pier.
Even though officials in the Keys urged people to stay indoors, the thrill-seekers - including small children - waded through the choppy water to the barrier at the end of the pier as the three-to-four-foot waves crashed over them.
“This was one of the furthest outreaching piers they have in Key West,” said a staff sergeant who was part of the four-person Special Forces reconnaissance team. “We just went out there to see what the winds were like. As we got out there, the winds picked up from about 40 mph to 60 mph, and we noticed there was a bunch of kids - anywhere from 5 to 10 years old - out there with parents and playing around in the waves.”
The soldier, who is not identified due to security concerns about his normal federal mission, said the Guard unit was working closely with local law enforcement and city emergency management officials to assess damage and flooding from Hurricane Ike.
“It was very unsafe,” he explained. “Within the 20 minutes we were out there, I estimated the winds actually picked up to over 60 mph.”
After warning the swimmers about the dangerous surf, the soldiers reported the activity to Key West police officers who made the decision to clear the pier. The team assisted as a uniformed police officer ordered the swimmers from the dangerous pier.
“Right as we were leaving, things started getting really bad,” the soldier added. “The dock is made of concrete; the high winds and the waves that were coming over could have easily knocked one of the kids down and ground them into the pavement. It wouldn’t have been pretty.”
As rain bands from Hurricane Ike rolled across the Keys, tornado warnings were frequent, and city officials continued to monitor the situation as weather conditions worsened. Earlier in the day an overturned truck on U.S. 1 had blocked traffic in and out of the Lower Keys at Mile Marker 72, and minor coastal flooding was prevalent in low-lying areas, according to officials at the Key West Emergency Operations Center.
The Florida Army National Guard soldiers continued damage and flooding assessment patrols throughout the day, assisting Key West emergency responders.