Two days after Hurricane Irma trashed the Florida Keys, some island residents were allowed to return home Tuesday but access remained closed south of Islamorada as authorities searched homes, cleared roads and worked to restore power, cell service and running water.
By Tuesday night, Monroe County offered some good news: The Florida Department of Transportation cleared all of the bridges and deemed U.S. 1 safe, search and rescue crews have found no casualties and food and water has arrived.
And despite reports of devastating destruction, Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, who lives in Key West, said crews are finding that many structures survived the storm.
“Things look real damaged from the air, but when you clear the trees and all the debris, it’s not much damage to the houses,” said Carruthers, whose own home was built in 1889 and only had downed shutters, in a news release.
Those hardest hit lived in low-lying areas such as the San Pedro Village trailer park in Islamorada. Angelica Letteken, a veteran of 15 earlier hurricanes, had her tiny trailer blown apart.
“I lost everything,” said Letteken, who rode out the storm at a last-resort shelter at Coral Shores High. “It was the surge. Totally wiped out.”
The catastrophe may be too much for her to stay in paradise. “I think I’m going to see my family. I’m going to Chile for two weeks,” she said, beginning to cry. “Just go see my family. Cool down. I need some hugs.”
A Category 4 hurricane, Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key early Sunday, tossing around boats like toys, wrecking trailer homes and tearing apart businesses. The Overseas Highway, the only artery running through the Keys, was littered with sea grass and debris.
On Tuesday night, the county said FDOT inspected all of the 42 bridges along U.S. 1 and repaired two stretches of the highway that washed away, at Mile Marker 75 and Mile Marker 37. Though the road is safe, residents of the Lower Keys would still not be allowed to return home Wednesday morning.
While Hurricane Irma wrecked the lives of people like Letteken, gauging the full scope of the damage remains a work in progress. The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Tuesday that “initial estimates” were that a quarter of all Keys houses were “destroyed” and 65 percent suffered some damage.
“Basically every house in the Keys was impacted one way or another,” FEMA Director William “Brock” Long said Tuesday at a press conference in Washington..
A Miami Herald tour from Key West to Key Largo one day after the storm revealed widespread damage but many homes were still standing, their sturdy foundations and elevated living quarters seeming to hold up against winds and storm surge. An emergency medical technician surveying the damage from the air told USA Today on Tuesday that the damage didn’t appear as devastating as what happened on the Caribbean islands hit by Irma.
“But most of the buildings [in the Keys] were still standing. It seems that the infrastructure and the homes were really hurricane proof. I was really surprised,” Mickey Hoho told the newspaper.
Marathon City Manager Chuck Lindsey said the storm was bad — but not as bad as originally feared.
“As we get roads clear, we’re finding that damages are less than our initial estimate,” Lindsey told The Keynoter.
Marathon wasn’t accessible to residents just yet. As authorities were going door to door to search for victims in the hardest-hit areas and planning relief efforts, they blocked people from entering south of mile marker 80.
“When I went through the checkpoint in Florida City, I had my local sticker, and the officer said, ‘Welcome home,’” said Lisa Mongelia of Islamorada, who runs the History of Diving Museum, which emerged largely unscathed.
For those who returned to the Upper Keys, they were glad to be returning, even if and gasthey had weeks or months of misery ahead. There’s scant electricity, no running water in some areas and limited groceries and gas.
Tuesday, Florida Keys Electric Coop, which services the Upper Keys to the end of the Seven Mile Bridge, said about 30 percent of its customers had power.
And the county reported the sewer system was functioning.
Rich Russell also breathed easy. A descendant of one of Islamorada’s founding families, his uncle designed the home in which he and his family live. The yard was littered with vegetation, but the house was unscathed.
“I have an uncle who survived the ’35 hurricane and Hurricane Donna,” Russell said. “He’s a magna cum laude from Yale in engineering. He engineered a house that we feel very comfortable with.”