Of­fi­cials will be­gin al­low­ing hur­ri­cane-scat­tered res­i­dents of the Florida Keys to re­turn to­day.

In­fra­struc­ture be­ing re­built quickly along is­land chain, but evac­u­ated res­i­dents will face ‘prim­i­tive con­di­tions’ when they re­turn home

The Arizona Republic - - FRONT PAGE - Trevor Hughes and Isadora Ran­gel

MARATHON, FLA. Author­i­ties opened Marathon to res­i­dents Satur­day but urged them to come pre­pared with sup­plies, med­i­ca­tions and any­thing else they can col­lect be­fore they re- turn home to the badly dam­aged Florida Keys a week af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma bat­tered the low-ly­ing is­land chain.

“We’ve gone through some dif­fi­cult times here. We will go through some more dif­fi­cult times,” Mon­roe County Com­mis­sioner Ge­orge Neu­gent said. “The Keys are not what you left sev­eral days ago.”

Com­mis­sioner Heather Car- ruthers said of­fi­cials de­cided to re­open the Lower Keys to al­low peo­ple to re­turn and as­sess the dam­age to their prop­erty. Yet the fewer peo­ple come back, the less they will over­whelm ex­ist­ing re­sources. Plumbers, air-con­di­tion­ing re­pair work­ers and other peo­ple with skills to help the area re­cover are needed.

Car­ruthers said it will be a while be­fore the Keys re­turn to nor­malcy, and the dis­trict’s an­nounce­ment that schools will re­open Sept. 25 will help that hap­pen.

“Peo­ple need to be pre­pared for prim­i­tive con­di­tions,” she said.

Frus­trated res­i­dents camped out at a check­point dur­ing the week de­mand­ing re-en­try into the lower parts of the chain of is­lands. Yet some un­der­stand the need to stay away and al­low re­cov­ery crews to clean up and reestab­lish power, water and cell­phone ser­vice.

“I un­der­stand why they keep you away and you would want to be away,” said Tim O’Hara, a re­porter at the Key West Cit­i­zen news­pa­per who evac­u­ated to Savannah, Ga. “You wouldn’t want to be down there sweat­ing all night long.”

O’Hara, his wife and son went to Tampa last Fri­day, but af­ter they saw Hur­ri­cane Irma was headed that way, they moved to Savannah. He said evac­u­at­ing has been stress­ful for his 5-year-old be­cause they switched to four dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions be­tween a friend’s house, an Airbnb and ho­tels.

“I can tell it’s been tough on him be­cause he keeps telling me, ‘Can we go home?’ ” said O’Hara, 48.

Co-work­ers who stayed be­hind told him his sec­ond-floor apart­ment, built to with­stand a Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­cane, didn’t sus­tain dam­age. A friend in Sum­mer­land Key, how­ever, lost his home, and an­other in Cud­joe Key doesn’t know what his house will look like when he re­turns, O’Hara said. He will be­gin head­ing back Sun­day morn­ing.

Mon­roe County of­fi­cials planned to open up U.S. High­way 1 all the way to Key West as of 7 a.m. Sun­day. The storm de­stroyed por­tions of the road, which have now been re­built; knocked down power lines and sev­ered drink­ing-water sup­plies; and cut off cell­phone and In­ter­net ser­vice. The storm also de­stroyed hun­dreds of homes, trail­ers and RVs, along with knock­ing down awnings over busi­nesses and break­ing off gas pumps.

“This is one of the tough­est de­ci­sions to make but also an in­di­ca­tor of how well our re­cov­ery has been go­ing since the Keys suf­fered a di­rect hit by Cat­e­gory 4 Hur­ri­cane Irma,” Mon­roe County Ad­min­is­tra­tor Ro­man Gastesi said in a state­ment. “We know there will be many chal­lenges ahead, es­pe­cially for our hard­est hit ar­eas in the Lower Keys. But we want our res­i­dents and busi­ness own­ers to come back to re­build their lives, their liveli­hoods and our econ­omy. We are pre­pared to re­store the Keys back to the spe­cial par­adise we love.”

Many peo­ple re­fused to leave the Keys dur­ing the storm. Evac­uees have fran­ti­cally con­tacted re­porters to get up­dates on their homes or tried to pass mes­sages to neigh­bors, and many have been watch­ing Face­book groups for in­for­ma­tion.

Author­i­ties said they’ve kept peo­ple out be­cause of fears of what would have po­ten­tially been a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis: thou­sands of peo­ple liv­ing with­out ac­cess to water, power or sewage dis­posal. For days, even law en­force­ment of­fi­cers were un­able to com­mu­ni­cate re­li­ably with one an­other af­ter the storm de­stroyed ra­dio re­peaters and phone lines. Work­ers are rapidly re­build­ing the area’s in­fra­struc­ture. Res­i­dents and busi­ness own­ers from the Up­per Keys have been able to ac­cess the area since Tues­day.

Of­fi­cials say nine deaths are con­nected to the storm in the Keys, al­though it’s un­clear how many were di­rectly re­lated to the weather. In sev­eral cases, author­i­ties said, peo­ple with pre-ex­ist­ing health con­di­tions died.

ALAN DIAZ/AP

KELLY JOR­DAN, USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Stephanie Mate­j­cik gets a hug from a neigh­bor as she moves her be­long­ings out of her Is­lam­orada, Fla., home Thurs­day.

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