On fly­over, dam­age sur­prises res­cuers

Florida Keys fared much bet­ter than what crew had seen on Caribbean is­lands

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Alan Gomez @alan­gomez USA TO­DAY

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.

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