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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Mirta Mendez walks through the debris at the Seabreeze trailer park along the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys on Tuesday.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 1:00 am

Extent of destruction in Keys still a mystery

Associated Press

LOWER MATECUMBE KEY, Fla. – With 25 percent of the homes in the Florida Keys feared destroyed, emergency workers Tuesday rushed to find Hurricane Irma's victims – dead or alive – and deliver food and water to the stricken island chain.

As crews labored to repair the lone highway connecting the Keys, residents of some of the islands closest to Florida's mainland were allowed to return and get their first look at the devastation.

“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. “It's going to be devastating to them.”

Because of disrupted phone service and other damage, the full extent of the destruction was still in question more than two days after Irma roared into the Keys with 130 mph winds.

Elsewhere in Florida, life inched closer to normal, with some flights again taking off, many curfews lifted and major theme parks reopening. Cruise ships that extended their voyages and rode out the storm at sea began returning to port with thousands of passengers.

The number of people without electricity in the steamy late-summer heat dropped to about 10 million – half of Florida's population. Utility officials warned it could take 10 days or more for power to be fully restored. About 110,000 people remained in shelters.

The number of deaths blamed on Irma in Florida climbed to 13, in addition to four in South Carolina and two in Georgia. At least 37 people were killed in the Caribbean.

Irma's rainy remnants, meanwhile, pushed through Alabama and Mississippi after drenching Georgia. Flash-flood watches and warnings were issued around the Southeast.

While nearly all of Florida was engulfed by the 400-mile-wide storm, the Keys – home to about 70,000 people – was hardest hit. Drinking water and power were cut off, all three of the islands' hospitals were closed, and gasoline was extremely limited.

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.

Crews also worked to repair two washed-out, 300-foot sections of U.S. 1, the highway that runs through the Keys, and check the safety of the 42 bridges linking the islands.

Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said that preliminary estimates suggested that 25 percent of the homes in the Keys were destroyed and 65 percent sustained major damage.