Emergency workers in the Florida Keys have spent the past few days in a desperate search to find victims — dead or alive — and deliver food and water to those living on the stricken island chain. According to FEMA officials, they’re estimating that 25 percent of the homes in the Florida Keys have been destroyed.
As crews worked to repair the lone highway connecting the Keys, residents of some of the islands closest to Florida’s mainland were allowed to return and get their first look at the damage.
“It’s going to be pretty hard for those coming home,” said Petrona Hernandez, whose concrete home on Plantation Key with 35-foot walls was left unscathed; just a few blocks away, others weren’t as lucky. “It’s going to be devastating to them,” said the resident.
Lacking phone service and electricity more than two days after Irma roared into the Keys with 130 mph winds, the full extent of the destruction is still unclear.
According to Brock Long, a Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, preliminary estimates suggested that 25 percent of the homes in the Keys were destroyed and 65 percent sustained major damage.
“Basically, every house in the Keys was impacted,” he said.
Residents in the upper Keys were able to return home on Tuesday, according to a Fox News report.
One Key Largo resident, Clay Crockett, was with reporters when he walked around his home and pointed to the knee-high water line on the outside. “See, the water line is right here, which means I’m going to be flooded inside here. Yep. I can tell I have flooding inside already.” He then looked into a window and said, “Oh my God.”
The stench of sewage was prevalent in Islamorada, where a trailer park was destroyed and nearby homes were literally ripped apart. The debris on the ground included refrigerators, washers and dryers, a 25-foot (8-meter) fishing boat and a Jacuzzi.
After finding their weekend home turned to rubble, one man and his family just turned around and drove back up north.
Authorities stopped people and checked for documentation such as proof of residency or business ownership before allowing them back into the Upper Keys, including Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada.
The Lower Keys — including the famous Key West, population 27,000 — were still off-limits, with a roadblock in place where the highway was washed out.
Approximately 13 percent of the people living in the Keys are impoverished, and they face a rough recovery. “People who bag your groceries when you’re on vacation — the bus drivers, hotel cleaners, cooks and dishwashers — they’re already living beyond paycheck to paycheck,” said Stephanie Kaple, who runs an organization that helps the homeless in the Keys.
Corey Smith, a UPS driver who rode out the hurricane in Key Largo, said it was a relief that many buildings on the island escaped major damage. But he said conditions were still not good, with branches blocking roads and supermarkets closed.
“They’re shoving people back to a place with no resources,” he said by telephone. “It’s just going to get crazy pretty quick.”
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