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Friday September 22nd, 2017 6:43PM

Floridians allowed to return to some of the hard-hit Keys

By The Associated Press
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MIAMI (AP) — Residents were allowed to return Tuesday to some islands in the hurricane-slammed Florida Keys as officials sought to piece together the scope of Irma's destruction and rush aid into the drenched and debris-strewn state.

Two days after the storm roared into the Keys with 130 mph winds, the full extent of the damage there was still a question mark because communications and access were cut off in many cases.

At the northern end of the Keys, residents and business owners from Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada were allowed back for their first look.

The Lower Keys — including the chain's most distant and most populous island, Key West, with 27,000 people — were still off-limits, with a roadblock in place where the single highway to the farther islands was washed out. Road repairs were promised in the coming days.

Corey Smith, a UPS driver who rode out the hurricane in Key Largo, said that power was out on the island, there was very limited gas and supermarkets were closed. Branches and other brush blocked some roads.

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

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

On Tuesday morning, the rainy remnants of Irma pushed through Alabama and Mississippi after drenching Georgia. Flash-flood watches and warnings were issued around the Southeast.

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

As many as 13 million Florida residents — two-thirds of the state's population — were without electricity as sweltering heat returned across the peninsula in the storm's wake, and officials warned it could take weeks for power to be fully restored. About 110,000 people remained in shelters statewide.

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

Authorities were stopping people to check documentation such as proof of residency or business ownership before allowing them back into the Upper Keys. All three hospitals on the island chain were still closed.

After flying over the Keys on Monday, the governor described overturned mobile homes, washed-ashore boats and other damage. A Navy aircraft carrier was due to anchor off Key West to help in the search-and-rescue effort.

Crews were working to reopen U.S. 1 through the Keys. Officials said there was no immediate sign of serious damage to the 42 bridges that link the islands, but they were still checking.

Key West resident Laura Keeney waited in a Miami hotel for word that it was safe to return home. 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 she doesn't plan to return anytime soon to her home near where Irma came ashore on Cudjoe Key.

"There are still nine 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."

In a parting blow to the state, the storm caused record flooding in the Jacksonville area.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said 356 people were rescued from the floodwaters on Monday. 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 were 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.

___

Mendoza reported from Atlanta. 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; and Jason Dearen, Curt Anderson and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.

___

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