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Thursday December 14th, 2017 5:13AM

Access restored to displaced residents of Upper Florida Keys

By The Associated Press
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MIAMI (AP) — Residents were returning Tuesday to some islands in the hurricane-hit Florida Keys as officials pieced together the scope of Irma's destruction and rushed aid into the drenched and debris-strewn state.

It has been difficult to get detailed information on the condition of the island chain where Irma first came ashore over the weekend because communication and access were cut off by the storm's arrival as a Category 4 hurricane. But displaced residents and business owners from Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada near the mainland were allowed to return for their first glimpse of the damage Tuesday morning.

People from the Lower Keys faced a longer wait with a roadblock in place where the highway to farther-away islands was washed out by the storm. Road repairs were promised in the coming days.

Corey Smith, who rode out the hurricane in Key Largo, said Tuesday that the power is out on the island, there's very limited gas and supermarkets are closed. Piles of brush and branches are blocking some roads. The UPS driver said he fears an influx of returnees could overwhelm what limited resources there are.

"They're shoving people back to a place with no resources," he said by phone. "It's just going to get crazy pretty quick."

Still, he said people coming back to Key Largo should be relieved that many buildings avoided major damage.

Authorities were stopping people to check documentation such as proof of residency or business ownership before allowing them back into the Upper Keys. County officials announced that one of three shuttered hospitals on the island chain was reopening.

After flying over the Keys Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott described overturned mobile homes, washed-ashore boats and flood damage. A Navy aircraft carrier was due to anchor off Key West to help in search-and-rescue efforts.

Elsewhere, areas such as Tampa Bay had braced for the worst but emerged with what appeared to be only modest damage.

On Tuesday morning, the remnants of Irma were blowing through Alabama and Mississippi after drenching Georgia. Flash flood watches and warnings were scattered around the Southeast.

Key West resident Laura Keeney was waiting 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 about flooding there, but further updates were hard to come by because of limited phone service.

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

Lower Keys resident Leyla Nedin said Tuesday she doesn't plan to return anytime soon to her home near where Irma first made landfall on Cudjoe Key.

"There are still 9 bridges that need final inspections. Plus we are still without water, power, sewer, gas and cell service," she said. "My concern is that even if we get to go in to the Lower Keys, our fragile infrastructure could be even more compromised."

The Keys are linked by 42 bridges that have to be checked for safety before motorists can be allowed on the farther islands, officials said. County officials placed a roadblock around Mile Marker 74 just before Sea Oates Beach, but said crews were working to restore U.S. 1 as quickly as possible.

A stunning 13 million Florida residents were without electricity — two-thirds of the state's residents — as sweltering 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 hundreds of rescues.

School was canceled in communities around Georgia, where more than 1.2 million customers were still without power Tuesday.

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.

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

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

Still, Scott predicted 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.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said Tuesday that 356 people were rescued from flooding the previous day. On its Twitter account, the sheriff's office said it hopes "people who had their lives saved yesterday will take evacuation orders seriously in the future."

Paul Johnson and Shonda Brecheen spent Sunday night in a house they're remodeling near downtown Jacksonville after working late on the project. Jonhson woke up Monday to see boats passing by where cars normally drive.

They managed to push his truck through standing water to a parking lot to dry out, but he's worried about 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 Terry Spencer in Palm Beach County; Gary Fineout and Joe Reedy in Tallahassee; Jay Reeves in Immokalee; Terrance Harris and Claire Galofaro in Orlando; Martha Mendoza in Atlanta; 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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