After Hurricane Irma overwhelmed the Florida Keys with 15-foot storm surges and 130 mph winds, causing the worst flooding the chain of islands has experienced in nearly a century, federal officials' first assessment of the damage suggests that nearly a quarter of the homes on the island were destroyed, according to the Associated Press. While not every home is beyond repair, officials said no structures escaped some form of damage.
“Basically every house in the Keys was impacted in some way or another,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said at a news conference. “This is why we ask people to leave.”
While residents and business owners in the Upper Keys as far south as Islamorada were allowed back into the area Tuesday morning, Monroe County officials urged people to stay away. “Fuel, water, power & medical super limited,” the county said on Twitter, according to WSJ. The county has about 53,000 housing units, census figures show. Nearly all are on the Keys, a 110-mile ribbon of low-lying islands linked by bridges. Monroe County is home to 79,000 people, the vast majority of whom live on the archipelago.
Elsewhere, federal authorities have maintained their mandatory evacuation order during the early stages of the cleanup. Throughout the state, some 155,000 people are still in shelters and more than 9 million Floridians lack power, exposing them to the unpleasant summer heat. That’s compared with roughly three-quarters-of-a-million customers were still without power in Georgia and the Carolinas by late Tuesday, according to local utilities.
Meanwhile, workers Tuesday rushed to find any victims who had remained on the islands during the storm, and deliver food and water.
"It's going to be pretty hard for those coming home," said Petrona Hernandez, whose concrete home on Plantation Key with 35-foot walls was unscathed, unlike others a few blocks away. "It's going to be devastating to them."
With phone service still unavailable, the full extent of the destruction was still a question mark.
Further north, life in Florida inched closer to normal, with some flights again taking off, curfews lifted and theme parks reopening. Cruise ships that extended their voyages and rode out the storm at sea began returning to port with thousands of passengers. Crews also worked to repair two washed-out, 300-foot sections of US 1, the highway that runs through the Keys, and check the safety of the 42 bridges linking the islands. Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday said transportation authorities were inspecting those bridges to make sure they can still bear weight.
Meanwhile, the number of deaths blamed on Irma in Florida climbed to 12, in addition to four in South Carolina and two in Georgia. At least 37 people were killed in the Caribbean.
"We've got a lot of work to do, but everybody's going to come together," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said. "We're going to get this state rebuilt."
Search-and-rescue teams made their way into the more distant reaches of the Keys, and an aircraft carrier was positioned off Key West to help. Officials said it was not known how many people ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind in the Keys.
Some of the residents who’ve already returned are becoming so desperate, the sound of helicopters purring overhead elicits a sense of elation – a sign that the recovery effort is under way.
“In Key Largo, Lisa Storey and her husband said they had yet to be contacted by the power company or by city, county or state officials. As she spoke to a reporter, a helicopter passed overhead.
‘That's a beautiful sound, a rescue sound,’ she said.”
As the cleanup and recovery effort started in earnest, a few of the most heavily impacted cities, like Miami Beach, were just beginning to reopen, highways leading into the state from Georgia had bumper-to-bumper traffic, and long lines at gas stations remained a major frustration in cities like Fort Myers.
While officials from Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility, have said their rebuilding of the power grid could take weeks, the recovery could take even longer in the Keys, where, according to WSJ, the pleasures of island life in the subtropics have long come mixed with danger. One of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the US slammed into the Keys on Labor Day in 1935 at Category 5 strength, killing 408 people, according to the National Hurricane Center.