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Thursday December 14th, 2017 5:12AM

Hurricane-hit Florida makes slow moves toward recovery

By The Associated Press
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MIAMI (AP) — Aid rushed in to hurricane-scarred Florida early Tuesday as officials pieced together the scope of Irma's destructive path and displaced residents awaited word on hard-hit areas including the Florida Keys.

It was difficult to get detailed information on the condition of island chain where Irma first came ashore over the weekend because communication and access were all but cut off by the storm's arrival as a Category 4 hurricane.

But after flying over the Keys Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott gave this assessment: "It's devastating."

Authorities were letting residents and business owners to return to Upper Keys islands close to the mainland Tuesday morning, but people from the Lower Keys faced a longer wait.

Elsewhere, areas such as Tampa Bay had braced for the worst but emerged with what appeared to be only modest damage. Early Tuesday, the remnants of Irma were blowing through Alabama and Mississippi after drenching Georgia.

A Navy aircraft carrier was due to anchor off Key West to help in search-and-rescue efforts. Drinking water supplies in the Keys were cut off, fuel was running low and all three hospitals in the island chain were shuttered. The governor described overturned mobile homes, washed-ashore boats and rampant flood damage.

Key West resident Laura Keeney waited in a Miami hotel until it was safe to return home, and she was anxious to hear more about her apartment complex. Her building manager told her there was flooding there, but further updates were hard to come by because power and cell phone service have been down on the island.

"They told me there is definitely water in the downstairs apartment, which is me," said Keeney, who works as a concierge at the Hyatt in Key West.

A stunning 13 million Florida residents were without electricity — two-thirds of the third-largest state's residents — as tropical heat returned across the peninsula following the storm. In a parting blow to the state, the storm caused record flooding in the Jacksonville area that forced dozens of rescues. It also caused flooding and outages in Georgia and South Carolina as it moved inland Monday.

Six deaths in Florida have been blamed on Irma, along with three in Georgia and one in South Carolina. At least 35 people were killed in the Caribbean.

A tornado spun off by Irma was reported on the Georgia coast Monday , and firefighters inland had to rescue several people after trees fell on their homes. A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, and school was canceled in communities around the state. More than 1.5 million customers were without power Monday night in Georgia.

More than 180,000 people huddled in shelters in the Sunshine State and officials warned it could take weeks for electricity to be restored to everyone.

The governor said it was way too early to put a dollar estimate on the damage.

During its march up Florida's west coast, Irma swamped homes, uprooted trees and flooded streets.

Around the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, where Irma rolled through early Monday, damage appeared modest. And the governor said damage on the southwest coast, including in Naples and Fort Myers, was not as bad as feared.

Still, Scott predicted that recovery could take a long time in many areas.

"I know for our entire state, especially the Keys, it's going to be a long road," he said.

He said the Navy dispatched the USS Iwo Jima, USS New York and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to help with relief efforts.

The Keys are linked by 42 bridges that have to be checked for safety before motorists can be allowed in, officials said. The governor said the route also needs to be cleared of debris and sand, but should be usable fairly quickly.

In the Jacksonville area, close to the Georgia line, storm surge brought some of the worst flooding ever seen there, with at least 46 people pulled from swamped homes.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office warned residents along the St. Johns River to "Get out NOW" on Monday as floodwaters rose.

Paul Johnson and Shonda Brecheen spent Sunday night in a house they're remodeling in the San Marco neighborhood of Jacksonville after working late on a remodeling project. Jonhson woke up Monday morning, looked out the window and saw boats passing by where cars used to drive in the neighborhood near the river.

The managed to push his truck through standing water to a nearby parking lot to dry out, but he's worried about damage to the swamped vehicle.

"I'm 32, I've lived here most of my life, and I've never seen anything like that," he said.

___

Ferguson reported from Jacksonville. Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Terry Spencer in Palm Beach County; Gary Fineout and Joe Reedy in Tallahassee; Jay Reeves in Immokalee; Terrance Harris and Claire Galofaro in Orlando; and Jason Dearen, Freida Frisaro, Curt Anderson and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.

___

HURRICANE NEWSLETTER — Get the best of the AP's all-formats reporting on Irma and Harvey in your inbox: http://apne.ws/ahYQGtb

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