The Florida Keys
are a cluster of about 1700
islands in the southeast United States. They begin at the
southeastern tip of the Florida peninsula, about south of Miami, and extend in a gentle arc south-southwest and
then westward to Key West, the
westernmost of the inhabited islands, and on to the uninhabited
islands lie along the Florida Straits, dividing the Atlantic Ocean to the east from the Gulf of Mexico to the west, and defining one edge of Florida Bay. At the nearest point, the southern tip of Key
West is just from Cuba.
Florida Keys are between about 23.5 and 25.5 degrees North
latitude, in the subtropics
. The climate
of the Keys however, is defined as tropical
according to Köppen climate
. More than 95 percent of the land area lies in
County, but a small portion extends northeast into
County, primarily in the city of Islandia, Florida.
total land area is . As of the 2000 census
the population was
79,535, with an average density of , although much of the
population is concentrated in a few areas of much higher density,
such as the city of Key West, which has 32% of the entire
population of the Keys.
of Key West is the county seat of
County, which consists of a section on the mainland which is almost entirely in Everglades
National Park, and the Keys islands from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas.
The Keys were originally inhabited by Calusa
Native Americans. They were
later found and charted by Juan
Ponce de León
. "Key" is corrupted from the Spanish
, meaning small island. For many years, Key West was
the largest town in Florida, and it grew prosperous on wrecking
. The isolated outpost was well
located for trade with Cuba, the Bahamas, and was on the main trade
route from New Orleans. Improved navigation led to fewer
shipwrecks, and Key West went into a decline in the late nineteenth
century. A legend says that shipwreckers
removed navigational markers from shallow areas to strand
unsuspecting captains ashore.
The Keys were long accessible only by water. This changed with the
completion of Henry Flagler
's Overseas Railway
in the early 1910s.
Flagler, a major developer of Florida's Atlantic coast, extended
his Florida East Coast
down to Key West with an ambitious series of over-sea
Labor Day Hurricane of 1935
One of the worst hurricanes to strike the U.S. made landfall near
Islamorada in the Upper Keys on Labor Day, Monday 2 September
. Winds were estimated to have gusted
to , raising a storm surge more than above sea level that washed
over the islands. More than 400 people were killed, though some
estimates place the number of deaths at more than 600.
The Labor Day Hurricane is one of only three hurricanes to make
landfall at Category
strength on the U.S. coast since reliable weather records
began (about 1850). The other storms were Hurricane Camille
(1969) and Hurricane Andrew
In 1935, new bridges were under construction to connect a highway
through the entire Keys. Hundreds of World War I veterans working
on the roadway as part of a government relief program were housed
in non-reinforced buildings in three construction camps in the
Upper Keys. When the evacuation train failed to reach the camps
before the storm, more than 200 veterans perished. Their deaths
caused anger and charges of mismanagement that led to a
The storm also ended the 23-year run of the Overseas Railway; the
damaged tracks were never rebuilt, and the Overseas Highway (U.S.
Highway 1) replaced the railroad as the main transportation route
from Miami to Key West.
Seven Mile Bridge
One of the
longest bridges when it
was built, the Seven Mile Bridge
Key (part of the city of Marathon in the Middle Keys) to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys.
concrete bridge is or 6.79 miles (10.93 km) long. The current bridge
Key, a small island that housed workers building
Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway in the
1900s, that the original Seven Mile Bridge crossed.
section of the old bridge remains for access to the island,
although it was closed to vehicular traffic on March 4, 2008. The
aging structure has been deemed unsafe by the Florida Department of
. Costly repairs, estimated to be as much as $34
million, were expected to begin in July 2008. Monroe County was
unable to secure a $17 million loan through the state
infrastructure bank, delaying work for at least a year. On June 14,
2008, the old bridge section leading to Pigeon Key was closed to
fishing as well. While still open to pedestrians — walking, biking
and jogging — if the bridge were closed altogether, only a ferry
subsidized by FDOT and managed by the county would transport
visitors to the island.
After the destruction of the Keys railway by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935
railroad bridges, including the Seven Mile Bridge, were converted
to automobile roadways. U.S.
1 runs the length of the Keys and up
the East Coast to Maine; the Keys
section is also called the Overseas Highway.
Following the Cuban Revolution
many Cubans fled to South Florida. Key West had traditionally had
strong links with their neighbor ninety miles south by water, and
large numbers of Cubans settled there. The Keys still attract
Cubans leaving their home country, and stories of "boat people"
coming ashore are not uncommon.
the United States Border
Patrol had established a roadblock and inspection points on US
Highway 1, stopping all northbound traffic returning to the
mainland at Florida
City, to search vehicles for illegal drugs and illegal
The Key West City Council repeatedly complained
about the roadblocks, which were a major inconvenience for people
traveling from Key West, and hurt the Keys' important tourism
various unsuccessful complaints and attempts to get a legal
injunction against the blockade failed in federal court in Miami, on 23 April
1982 Key West mayor Dennis Wardlow
and the city council declared the independence of the city of
West, calling it the "Conch Republic".
After one minute of secession, he (as
"Prime Minister") surrendered to an officer of the Key West Naval
Air Station (NAS), and requested one billion ($1,000,000,000)
dollars in "foreign aid
The stunt succeeded in generating great publicity for the Keys'
plight, and the inspection station roadblock was removed. It also
provided a new source of revenue for the Keys, and the Conch
Republic has participated in later protests.
Many fortunes have been made through the smuggling of drugs into
the United States by way of the Keys. Law enforcement has been a
major addition over the years as smuggling increased and spread
throughout most of the Keys. During the 1970s this Law Enforcement
was practically non-existent, and tons of cannabis came into the
Keys by boat and were carried off the islands by tractor trailers.
With the beginning of the "War on Drugs" in the 1980s, Federal and
State Law Enforcement began its expansion in an effort to stop the
smuggling.The smuggling groups adjusted their tactics and even
though Law Enforcement began to make some arrests, drugs continued
to pour through from Key West to Everglades City.The eighties saw
the rise of cocaine smuggling into the Keys by smaller boats with
"hidden" compartments and various underwater containers attached to
the bottom of vessels.
The Keys were formed near the edge of
the Florida Plateau
The Florida Keys are the exposed portions of an ancient coral reef
.The northernmost island arising from the
ancient reef formation is Elliott Key, in Biscayne National Park.
North of Elliott Key are several small
transitional keys, composed of sand built up around small areas of
exposed ancient reef. Further north, Key Biscayne and places north are barrier islands, built up of
The Florida Keys have taken their present form as the result of the
drastic changes in sea level associated with recent glaciations
. Beginning some 130,000 years ago the Sangamonian Stage
raised sea levels to
approximately 25 feet (7.5 m) above the current level. All of
southern Florida was covered by a shallow sea. Several parallel
lines of reef formed along the edge of the submerged Florida
, stretching south and then west from
the present Miami area to what is now the Dry Tortugas.
formed the Key Largo limestone that is
exposed on the surface from Soldier Key (midway between Key Biscayne and Elliott Key) to
the southeast portion of Big Pine Key and the Newfound Harbor Keys.
The types of
that formed Key Largo limestone can be
identified on the exposed surface of these keys.
Starting about 100,000 years ago the Wisconsin glaciation
began lowering sea
levels, exposing the coral reef and surrounding marine sediments
15,000 years ago the sea level had dropped to 300 to below the
contemporary level. The exposed reefs and sediments were heavily
eroded. Acidic water, which can result from decaying vegetation,
dissolves limestone. Some of the dissolved limestone redeposited as
a denser cap rock
, which can be seen as outcrops overlying
the Key Largo and Miami limestones throughout the Keys. The
limestone that eroded from the reef formed oolites
in the shallow sea behind the reef, and
together with the skeletal remains of bryozoans
, formed the Miami limestone that is the
current surface bedrock of the lower Florida peninsula and the
lower keys from Big Pine Key to Key West. To the west of Key West
the ancient reef is covered by recent calcareous
The Keys are in the subtropics between 24
latitude. The climate and environment are closer
to that of the Caribbean than the rest of Florida, though unlike
the Caribbean's volcanic islands, the Keys were built by plants and
The Upper Keys islands are remnants of large coral reefs, which
became fossilized and exposed as sea level declined. The Lower Keys
are composed of sandy-type accumulations of limestone grains
produced by plants and marine organisms.
The natural habitats of the Keys are upland forests, inland
wetlands and shoreline zones. Soil ranges from sand to marl to
rich, decomposed leaf litter. In some places, "caprock" (the eroded
surface of coral formations) covers the ground. Rain falling
through leaf debris becomes acidic and dissolves holes in the
limestone, where soil accumulates and trees root.
The climate is tropical
(Koppen climate classification
), and the Keys are the only frost-free place in
Florida. There are two main "seasons": hot, wet, and humid from
about June through October, and somewhat drier and cooler weather
from November through May. Many plants grow slowly or go dormant in
the dry season. Some native trees are deciduous, and drop their
leaves in the winter or with spring winds.
The Keys have distinctive plant and animals species, some found
nowhere else in America, as the Keys define the northern extent of
their ranges. The climate also allows many imported plants to
thrive. Nearly any houseplant known to commerce, and most landscape
plants of the South, can thrive in the Keys climate. Some exotic
species which arrived as landscape plants now invade and threaten
The native flora of the Keys is diverse, including both temperate
families, such as maple (Acer
), pine (Pinus
) and oak (Quercus
growing at the southern end of their ranges, and tropical families,
including mahogany (Swietenia
), stoppers (Eugenia
), Jamaican dogwood (Piscidia
), and many others, which grow only as far
north as 25 or 26 degrees north latitude.
Several plants that are popularly thought of as exemplifying Keys
landscapes are in fact not native. These include coconut palm
, and papaya
well-known and very sour Key lime (or
Mexican lime) is a naturalized
species, apparently introduced from the Yucatán
Peninsula of Mexico, where it
had previously been introduced from Malaysia by explorers from Spain.
tree grows vigorously and has thorns, and produces golf-ball-size
yellow fruit which is particularly acidic
in highly alkaline
coral soil) and uniquely
fragrant. Key lime pie
gets its name
from the fruit.
are also home to unique animal species, including the Key deer, protected by the National Key
Deer Refuge, and the American
crocodile. About 70 miles (110 km) west of Key
West is Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the most isolated and therefore
well-preserved in the world.
The name derives from the fact
that when Spanish explorers arrived no fresh water could be found,
and the small hump-shaped islands look like tortoise
in Spanish) shells from a distance.
The waters surrounding the Keys are part of a protected area known
as the Florida
Keys National Marine Sanctuary
The Keys are regularly threatened by tropical storms
, leading to evacuations to the
mainland. Untouched for many years, a carefree attitude led many
residents to view "mandatory" evacuations as "voluntary" and
"voluntary" evacuation orders as nothing at all. The attitude proved
dangerous when Hurricane Georges,
after tearing up much of the Caribbean, caused damage and extensive flooding in the Lower
Keys in 1998, before making landfall in
In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina
affected the Keys (although none made a direct hit), causing
widespread damage and flooding. The most severe hurricane to hit
the area was the Labor Day
Hurricane of 1935
, a Category 5 hurricane.
Tropical cyclones present special dangers and challenges to the
entire Keys. Because no area of the islands is more than above sea
level (and many are only a few feet elevation), and water surrounds
the islands, nearly every neighborhood is subject to devastating
flooding as well as hurricane winds. In response, many homes in the
Keys are built on concrete stilts with the first floor being not
legally habitable and enclosed by breakaway walls that are not
strongly attached to the rest of the house. Nonetheless, Monroe
county, as reported in the Federal Register, has estimated that
there are between 8,000 and 12,000 illegal enclosures inhabited by
Because of the threat from storm surge, evacuations are routinely
ordered when the National
issues a hurricane watch or warning, and are
sometimes ordered for a tropical storm warning. Evacuation of the
Keys depends on causeways and the two-lane highway to the mainland.
Time estimates for evacuating the entire Keys range from 12 to 24
hours. Evacuation estimates are significant in emergency planning,
of course, but also because they are a factor in local and state
regulations for controlling development. The building permit
allocation was increased in 2005 when local governments reduced
estimates for evacuation.
In the active hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, the Keys were
under mandatory evacuation orders several times. In August 2004,
Hurricane Charley passed about
west of Key
West, bringing tropical storm winds to the lower
The lower keys were evacuated in preparation for
in September, 2004 and
Hurricane Dennis in July 2005, but neither hurricane came close
enough to the Keys to do much damage. Hurricane Katrina
, which went on to
devastate parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, moved through south
Florida in August 2005 and tracked southwest past Key West, causing
minor damage and flooding. Hurricane
, which went on to destroy parts of Louisiana and Texas,
grew from a tropical storm to a Category 2 hurricane as it moved
westward from the Bahamas, passing south of Key West and causing
damage and surge flooding as far north as Key Largo. In October 2005,
Hurricane Wilma became the most
devastating hurricane to hit the Keys in decades when it passed
just northwest of Key
West. The low-lying parts of the city were left
under 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 metres) of water from the storm surge,
and major flooding was reported throughout the Keys up to Key Largo.
U.S. Highway 1, the "Overseas
Highway" runs over most of the inhabited islands of the
The islands are listed in order from north to
National Park (accessible only by boat) in Miami-Dade
(Plantation Key through Lower Matecumbe Key
are incorporated as Islamorada, Village of Islands. The "towns" of
Largo, North Key Largo and Tavernier, all on the island of Key Largo, are not
- True Florida keys, exposed ancient coral reefs
Vaca, Boot Key, Fat Deer Key, Long Point Key, Crawl Key, Knight's
Key and Grassy Key are incorporated in the city of Marathon)
These are accessible by boat.
- among others
chain of Keys islands can be traveled by motor vehicles on the
Highway, a section of U.S. 1, which runs from Key West to
Maine in its entirety.
The highway was built
parallel to the original route of the Overseas Railway
, which was not rebuilt
following the Labor Day
hurricane of 1935
. Even before the hurricane, road sections and
highway bridges allowed automobile traffic to travel from Miami to
Lower Matecumbe Key, where a car ferry connected with another
roadway section through the Lower Keys. Following the hurricane,
some of the original railway bridges were converted to carry the
highway roadbeds. These bridges were used until the 1980s, when new
highway bridges were built alongside. Many of the original railroad
and highway bridges remain today as pedestrian fishing piers.
service connects the entire
Florida Keys island chain. Key
West Department of Transportation operates bus service
from Key West to Marathon and Miami-Dade Transit operates buses from
Marathon to Florida City.
Despite this reconstruction, U.S. 1 was not widened on a large
scale, and today, most of the route consists of only two lanes,
which is a frequent source of traffic. Due to their tropical
climate, the Florida Keys attract several hundred thousand tourists
annually. While some visitors arrive via Key West
International Airport and Florida Keys Marathon Airport in Marathon, cruise ship or ferry from Miami or Fort Myers, the vast majority of tourists drive down from
the mainland on U.S.
1. This influx of traffic, coupled with
the two-lane nature of U.S.-1 through most of its length in the
Keys, and the fact that no alternative road routes are available
mean that Monroe County has the highest per
rate of fatal automobile
in the state of Florida. The Florida Department of
Transportation, in an effort to promote awareness of the dangers of
driving U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys, has constructed large
signs detailing the number of highway deaths along the highway
south of Florida
City and just east of Key West.
The signs feature removable numbers that
tally the number of deaths recorded in the year to date. The signs
are maintained by the Florida Department of Transportation and are
kept up to date with information from the Florida Highway Patrol
, the Florida Keys Keynoter
Culture and recreation
"hurricane bravado" is part of the Keys' laid-back atmosphere, as
is the somewhat separatist "Conch Republic" attitude.
Fishing in the Florida Keys
Life is easygoing, with the major
industries being tourism and fishing. Ecotourism
is also part of this, with many
visitors scuba diving
in the area's
protected waters. A new ferry now takes riders between Key
West and Fort
Myers, due north on the mainland, along the western
edge of Florida Bay.
- U.S. National Park Service
- Köppen Climate Classification Map on
- Code of ordinances , City of Marathon,
- Monroe County Sheriff's Office - Florida Keys
- Monroe County, Florida
- Tourism Development Council information Accessed
September 27, 2007.
- Monroe County Tourist Development Council
Survey Accessed September 27, 2007.
- Florida Highway Patrol 2006 accident statistics
Accessed September 27, 2007.