Hurricane Marine Debris Cleanup


On Aug. 17, 2018, crew members used a long-reach excavator anchored atop a barge on Friday to remove Hurricane Irma debris – including a sunken motorhome – from Canal #242 at 6099 Overseas Highway in Marathon. 

It was the start of a $49.2 million project to remove hurricane debris from 103 of the most impacted canals in the Keys. A workforce of about 60 people – using 15 barges, 5 sonar boats, 4 grapple trucks, and other equipment – worked at several sites simultaneously throughout the Keys to complete the project.

The canals cleaned up under this grant were chosen by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). With the success of the first approved canals, NRCS approved an additional 41 canals in September 2018, and then 28 more canals in October 2018. In May 2019, NRCS approved 10 canals for Hurricane Irma sediment removal. And, in July 2019, 76 additional canals were approved for marine debris removal. 

Photo of minivan being removed from canal 277 on BIg Pine Key during Monroe County hurricane marine

Project Updates

As of Oct. 15, 2019, 400 days of the 505-day revised project, the removal work status is as follows: 

  • 100 percent of original marine debris removal canals have been completed (172 of 172 canals complete)
  • 100 percent complete with sediment removal in approved canals (9 of 9). There are 5 more canals in Islamorada in review by NRCS for sediment removal.
  • 94 percent complete with additional approved marine debris removal canals (233 out of 247 canals in total)
  • 64 percent of the grant funding for cleanup has been used for the original and revised project ($29.5 million out of $45.8 million).
  • The project is on schedule, 100 percent complete with the original schedule and 79 percent complete with the revised schedule.

Adventure Environmental, Inc. (AEI) has continued the sediment removal activities for the approved canals in Marathon, Islamorada and Big Pine Key with an estimated total of 7,230 cubic yards removed. All permits for the sediment removal activities have been received and are underway.

Nine crews worked in six geographical parts of the Keys called Damage Survey Report (DSR) areas. This includes a car and a minivan removed from canal 277 on Big Pine Key and a 37-foot boat that was lifted off the bottom of canal 239 in Marathon using airbags. 

The hurricane marine debris was taken to nearby debris management sites before being hauled to the mainland for proper disposal.

Monroe County is working on obtaining additional information for resubmittal of the approximately 145 marine debris and 24 sediment removal canals that were not deemed eligible during the initial evaluation by NRCS. The County submitted additional information to NRCS on April 19, 2019, which included a total of 224 additional marine debris removal canals.

NRCS approved 76 additional debris removal canals throughout the Florida Keys on July 10, 2019.

What if my canal is not among the 172 approved canals?

Provide photos of the debris on the canal banks right after Irma hit, photos of debris that are now visible under the water, or underwater photos of the debris to

Note: All canals had sonar done by the County’s marine debris vendor to locate and measure the amount of debris in the canals. This information was provided to the federal granting agency NRCS.

This data was used in the determination by NRCS of which canals were approved for clearing. Not every canal with debris in it was or will be approved for clearing. It had to be enough debris to potentially affect the hydraulic flow capacity of that canal. NRCS makes that determination, not the County.

Any additional documentation provided by residents will be reviewed by the County and forwarded to NRCS for reconsideration.

Canal Cleanup Funding

After exhausting avenues for FEMA funding to clean up Hurricane Irma marine debris in Keys canals, Monroe County led a months-long effort to obtain alternate funding from the Emergency Watershed Protection Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

This type of funding was used following Hurricane Georges in 1998 to help the marine cleanup, but it is not commonly used for this purpose in the Keys. This time, it took a lot of advocating and work by County staff, help from leaders and staff of Marathon and Islamorada, and major advocating by U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, State Rep. Holly Raschein and State Senator Anitere Flores to be awarded this large grant.

“A miracle happened,” Monroe County Mayor David Rice told the crowd assembled at Canal #242 to watch the debris being removed to the happiness of nearby residents. “We are thankful to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for their assistance, cooperation, and funding.”

A total of $49.2 million is available under the grant ($45.9 million for marine clearing activities and $3.3 million for monitoring). It is divided as follows: $35.2 million for unincorporated Monroe County, $7.5 million for Marathon and $6.5 million for Islamorada.

The federal grant has a local match (non-federal funds) of 25 percent. Monroe County will use $5.5 million of its Florida Keys Stewardship Act funds toward its portion of the local match. Monroe County is thankful to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for providing much of the local match for the County, Marathon, and Islamorada.

FEMA has a comprehensive reimbursement policy in place for local governments to remove hurricane land debris, but FEMA does not have such a reimbursement policy for removing hurricane debris from canals.

“We did not want the expensive price tag for cleaning up the hurricane marine debris to be shouldered solely by our local residents who already have been through so much,” Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said. “That is why we worked so hard and persevered, with help from our municipal partners and our federal and state legislators, to get this alternative funding source. And once we were awarded the grant, County staff, led by Sustainability Director Rhonda Haag, worked hard to expedite its implementation so we can get these canals cleaned up as quickly as possible.”

To obtain this funding, on Feb. 15, 2018, Monroe County submitted five Damage Survey Report application packages for Irma marine debris removal to the regional office of the National Resources Conservation Services. NRCS chose the canals that would be eligible for the grant.

Status of Reimbursement

  • The County has submitted and received $10,599,482.80 in reimbursements from NRCS.
  • Monroe County submitted the sixth reimbursement request of $2,861,597.76 and it has been approved. 
  • Monroe County is working on the seventh reimbursement request of $2,404,729.41 and the eight reimbursement request of $1,323,522.49.


On Feb. 26, 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) approved 10 canals in Monroe County for sediment removal caused by Hurricane Irma.

The County submitted 34 canals to NRCS for funding for sediment removal eligibility determination. The 10 approved canals are located on Lower Matecumbe Key, on Sombrero Beach and Tingler Lane in Marathon, and on Big Pine Key on both sides of Hibiscus Lane, Avenue I, 4th Street, and 5th Street.

Monroe County hired Tavernier-based Adventure Environmental, Inc. to do the hurricane marine debris removal work, which started Aug. 17, 2018 with crews working at several sites simultaneously. As of Feb. 25, 2019, 87 percent of the approved canals have been completed - 149 of 171 canals. The marine debris removal portion of the project is expected to meet the 220-day deadline and to be completed under-budget. To date, $17.5 million of the NRCS-budgeted $45.8 million for debris removal has been used. The new sediment removal projects will be included in the original NRCS budget.

Monroe County also submitted a 60-day, no-cost time extension request to NRCS to revise the grant agreement end date from March 21 to May 20, 2019 to allow extra time for the sediment removal in the 10 canals. NRCS is reviewing the time extension request.

How were the canals chosen?

The original application packages from the County to NRCS were based on the limited information the County had at the time from the NOAA aerials taken immediately after the storm, and from a limited number of canals where Wood Environment & Infrastructure Services (which has worked with the County on canal restoration projects) visited and took underwater photos. These photos were taken in murky water after the storm. The County asked for all 500 canals to be cleared, but since the County could not provide detailed information on all 500, NRCS approved the 103 that had more detailed information.

Since then, Adventure Environmental had sonar scans conducted on all 500 canals, thus providing a more accurate depiction of the underwater debris in the canals. The County provided that sonar information to Wood Environment, which has been preparing applications for cleanup of the additional canals showing debris in them (that weren’t part of the 103 originally approved). NRCS is reviewing that information, and so far has approved the 41 new canals. There are more they are reviewing in the remaining DSR’s.


The County contracted with Tavernier-based Adventure Environmental to lead the cleanup. Adventure Environmental hired subcontractor Arnold’s Towing of Stock Island to help meet the grant deadline. Both companies are using barges specifically built to perform in the Keys environment with minimal impact.  


The work will be monitored by Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions, Inc.

  1. Rhonda Haag headshot

    Rhonda Haag

    Chief Resilience Officer
    Phone: 305-453-8774

  2. Sustainability

    Physical Address
    102050 Overseas Highway
    Key Largo, FL 33037

    Phone: 305-453-8774

Cleanup Project with DEP

Following the completion of 2.5 million cubic yards of Hurricane Irma land debris cleanup throughout the Keys, the cleanup of marine debris from the category 4 storm began in mid-February in unincorporated Monroe County. 

Monroe County signed an agreement with DEP in February to assist in the marine debris removal effort of the impacted canals and nearshore waters of Monroe County. DEP hired DRC Environmental Services to do the work. DEP oversaw the operation with Monroe County, and Monroe County staff provided local coordination.

The work under the $6 million agreement was prioritized by level of impact and economic impact on the residents. The hardest-hit areas will be cleaned first.

Under this agreement, crews removed 3,233 cubic yards of marine debris from the canals. For this project, the debris being removed includes vegetation, hazardous waste, construction and demolition debris, propane tanks, appliances, electronic waste, docks, vehicles, seawalls, and houses or portions of houses that pose a direct threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of the County and the State of Florida.

It does include motorhomes. It does not include boats, which are being addressed through the displaced vessel removal effort being overseen by the FWC. Also, no sediment or silt will be removed under this phase because it is not reimbursable by FEMA.

The work is being done with an operational plan approved and permitted by DEP and NOAA that ensures the protection of wildlife.