Re­turn­ing Florida evac­uees stunned by Irma’s wreck­age

Business World - - THE WORLD -

IS­LAM­ORADA, FLORIDA — Hur­ri­cane Irma evac­uees be­gan re­turn­ing to the storm-rav­aged Florida Keys on Tues­day to find homes ripped apart and busi­nesses coated in sea­weed amid a de­bris-strewn land­scape where an es­ti­mated 25% of all dwellings were de­stroyed.

The death toll from Irma, pre­vi­ously ranked as one of the most pow­er­ful At­lantic storms on record and the sec­ond ma­jor hur­ri­cane to strike the US main­land this sea­son, climbed to more than five dozen. Of those, 43 were killed in the Caribbean and at least 18 in the South­east­ern United States.

Twelve Irma-re­lated fa­tal­i­ties were con­firmed by Florida emer­gency man­age­ment of­fi­cials on Tues­day, while author­i­ties in Ge­or­gia and South Carolina each re­ported three deaths from the storm and its im­me­di­ate af­ter­math.

De­struc­tion was wide­spread in the Keys, a re­sort is­land chain stretch­ing south­west from the tip of the Florida Penin­sula into the Gulf of Mex­ico and con­nected by a sin­gle, nar­row high­way and a se­ries of bridges and cause­ways along a route of nearly 100 miles (160 km).

“I don’t have a house. I don’t have a job. I have noth­ing,” said Mercedes Lopez, 50, whose fam­ily fled north from the Florida Keys town of Marathon last Fri­day and rode out the storm at an Orlando ho­tel, only to learn their home was de­stroyed, along with the gaso­line sta­tion where he worked.

“We came here, leav­ing ev­ery­thing at home, and we go back to noth­ing,” Ms. Lopez said. Her and three other fam­i­lies from Marathon planned to ven­ture back on Wed­nes­day to sal­vage what they can.

Ini­tial dam­age as­sess­ments found 25% of homes in the Keys were de­stroyed and 65% with ma­jor dam­age, ac­cord­ing to Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency ad­min­is­tra­tor Brock Long.

“Ba­si­cally ev­ery house in the Keys was im­pacted,” he told re­porters.

The is­lands were largely evac­u­ated by the time Irma bar­reled ashore on Sun­day as a Cat­e­gory 4 hur­ri­cane with sus­tained winds of up to 130 mph (215 km/hour).

‘SAIL­BOAT IN OUR YARD’

Author­i­ties be­gan al­low­ing reen­try to the is­lands of Key Largo, Tav­ernier and Is­lam­orada two days later for res­i­dents and busi­ness own­ers only. The ex­tent of the dev­as­ta­tion took many by sur­prise.

“I ex­pected some fence lines to be down and some de­bris,” said Dr. Orlando More­jon, 51, a trauma sur­geon from Mi­ami as he hacked away at a tree block­ing his Is­lam­orada drive­way. “We were not ex­pect­ing to find some­one else’s sail­boat in our back­yard.”

The walls of nearby trailer homes were left ripped wide open, ex­pos­ing in­su­la­tion and the sod­den in­te­ri­ors of bed­rooms and kitchens to the el­e­ments.

At the Caloosa Cove Re­sort and Marina, con­crete pil­ings meant to hold the dock in place had been knocked side­ways, and three man­a­tees lolled in the wa­ter, drink­ing from an out­flow pump spit­ting wa­ter from the dock­side.

Mar­i­lyn Ramos, 44, spent the morn­ing clean­ing sand and sea­weed that had cov­ered her Cuban res­tau­rant Ha­vanos when she ar­rived early Tues­day.

“I’m try­ing to stay calm and see how we can work through this,” Ms. Ramos said. “It’s dev­as­tat­ing.”

A short dis­tance away, the scent of de­cay­ing sea­weed hung heavy in the air as Brooke Gil­bert, 15, stood with her younger sis­ter star­ing at the jumble of con­crete and twisted me­tal left from the three-story condo that was their fam­ily’s get­away home.

“There’s the couch right there,” she said. “I rec­og­nize the clothes in that closet. They be­long to my grand­mother.”

At the end of Is­lam­orada, roughly the half­way point of the Keys, po­lice at a check­point turned around re­turn­ing res­i­dents seek­ing to travel far­ther south and waved through util­ity crews, law en­force­ment and health care work­ers.

Author­i­ties said they were bar­ring reen­try to the re­main­der of the Keys to al­low more time to re­store elec­tric­ity, wa­ter, fuel sup­plies and med­i­cal ser­vice. US of­fi­cials have said some 10,000 Keys res­i­dents stayed put when the storm hit and may ul­ti­mately need to be evac­u­ated.

LIN­GER­ING OUT­AGES, FLOOD­ING

Some 5.8 mil­lion homes and busi­nesses were still with­out power in Florida and nearby states late on Tues­day, down from a peak of about 7.4 mil­lion on Mon­day. Florida’s largest util­ity, Florida Power & Light Co, said western parts of the state might be with­out elec­tric­ity un­til Sept. 22.

One of the chief hard­ships en­dured by many Florid­i­ans in the storm’s af­ter­math was dif­fi­culty stay­ing cool in the ab­sence of air con­di­tion­ing, ice and even nat­u­ral shade from trees knocked down or stripped bare of fo­liage.

“I just pour wa­ter on my head a few times a day,” said Ly­dia Grondin, 29, of Fort Laud­erdale.

Florida’s largest city, Jack­sonville in the north­east­ern cor­ner of the state, was still re­cov­er­ing from heavy flood­ing on Tues­day.

While dam­age across Florida was se­vere, it paled in scope to the dev­as­ta­tion wrought by Irma in parts of the Caribbean, which ac­counted for the bulk of Irma’s fa­tal­i­ties.

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