On flyover, damage surprises rescuers
Florida Keys fared much better than what crew had seen on Caribbean islands
A federal search-and-rescue team making its first flight over the Florida Keys on Tuesday was relieved to find far less damage than expected.
Ever since Hurricane Irma made landfall as a Category 4 on Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles east of Key West, little information has emerged about the fate of the chain of islands off Florida’s southern tip.
Early reports were catastrophic. Monroe County officials initially forbade residents from returning. The Department of Defense sent three aircraft carriers to the region, warning that as many as 10,000 people might need to be evacuated.
A six-member crew from Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations flying a Black Hawk helicopter over the islands Tuesday saw extensive damage but not anything that would require thousands of evacuations.
“I didn’t see anything like that,” said Creighton Skeen, an aviation enforcement agent aboard the flight.
The crew flew a pair of Florida Department of Transportation engineers who touched down at two points along US-1 to inspect damaged foundations under bridges. Along the way, the crew flew low along most of the island chain, watching for people in need of help.
Mickey Hohol, the helicopter’s emergency medical technician, said many of the homes he saw experienced severe water damage from Irma’s storm surge. He cautioned that much of the damage
inside homes, and any possible victims, are impossible to see from above.
The crew spent a week following Irma throughout the Caribbean, and Hohol said he expected to find far worse damage in the Keys.
“St. Thomas looked like a bomb went off,” he said. “But most of the buildings (in the Keys) were still standing. It seems that the infrastructure and the homes were really hurricaneproof. I was really surprised.”
Authorities in the Keys on Tuesday began allowing residents and workers to return to the upper islands in the chain — Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada. FEMA Administrator Brock Long had said about 25% of homes on the Keys were destroyed, and another two-thirds were damaged.
Flying down the island chain showed the progression of damage closer to Irma’s eye wall.
At the north end of the islands around Key Largo and Islamorada, most of the damage appeared to be battered and sunken boats. Buildings were messy but largely intact.
Farther down, around the Seven Mile Bridge that breaks up the Keys in two, roof damage became more visible. More homes were engulfed in sand and debris that were pushed ashore from the storm, and canals were cluttered with boats that broke loose from their moorings.
The worst of the damage was closest to Irma’s landfall, near Cudjoe, Big Pine and Summerland keys. There, some homes were destroyed, some lost their second floors, and mobile homes were stacked against each other.
“You could see how the damage increased as you made your way south,” Hohol said.
“It seems that the infrastructure and the homes were really hurricane-proof. I was really surprised.” Mickey Hohol, emergency medical technician
Cudjoe Key in the lower Florida Keys took the full strength of Irma as it made landfall as a Category 4 storm early Sunday. Residents began returning to the upper islands Tuesday.
Engineers inspecting the Florida Keys from above found bridges were secure and safe for travel.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations team surveyed the damage in Cudjoe Key.