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

By The Associated Press
Posted 11:18AM on Tuesday 12th September 2017 ( 3 months ago )

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.

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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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Olga Teakell hugs her grandson Gabriel Melendez, 9, after he cut his finger on glass, while he and his bother Ellisha Melendez, 12, left, help clean debris from Olga's destroyed home, in the Naples Estates mobile home park, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Naples, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Overturned trailer homes are shown in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, in the Florida Keys. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)
Damaged houses are shown in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, in the Florida Keys. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)
John Duke tries to figure out how to salvage his flooded vehicle in the wake Hurricane Irma, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
A fallen palm tree and a roof litters a street as Rick Freedman checks his neighborhood's damage from Hurricane Irma in Marco Island, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Julie Robles walks through a flooded neighborhood, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, in Immokalee, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Jean Chatelier walks through a flooded street from Hurricane Irma after retrieving his uniform from his house to return to work today at a supermarket in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. Chatelier walked about a mile each way in knee-high water as a Publix supermarket was planning on reopening to the public today. "I want to go back to work. I want to help," said Chatelier. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Pierre Ghantos, left, and his son Nathan paddle though their flooded neighborhood in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Sandra Pagan, left, escapes the heat inside her home with her dog Goldo and nephew Misael Fernandez after Hurricane Irma flooded their neighborhood leaving them without power and impassable with their cars in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. "It's unbearable," said Pagan who rode out the storm in the home with her family. "We can't sleep at all. It's so hot." (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Sandra Pagan, right, looks out from her front door while escaping the heat inside her home with her dog Goldo, nephew Misael Fernandez, center, and niece Lorraene Andaluz, in window at left, after Hurricane Irma flooded their neighborhood leaving them without power and impassable with their cars in Fort Myers, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. "It's unbearable," said Pagan who rode out the storm in the home with her family. "We can't sleep at all it's so hot." (AP Photo/David Goldman)

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