ISLAMORADA, Fla. (Reuters) – Evacuees from Hurricane Irma were early on Wednesday returning to the Florida Keys, where sunrise will give them a first glimpse of devastation that has left countless homes and businesses in ruins.
Categorized as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, Irma claimed more than 60 lives, officials said.
At least 18 people died in Florida and destruction was widespread in the Keys, where Irma made initial U.S. landfall on Sunday to become the second major hurricane to strike the mainland this season.
A resort island chain that stretches from the tip of the state into the Gulf of Mexico, the Keys are connected by a bridges and causeways along a narrow route of nearly 100 miles (160 km).
“I don’t have a house. I don’t have a job. I have nothing,” said Mercedes Lopez, 50, whose family fled north from the Keys town of Marathon on Friday and rode out the storm at an Orlando hotel, only to learn their home was destroyed, along with the gasoline station where she worked.
“We came here, leaving everything at home, and we go back to nothing,” Lopez said. Four families from Marathon including hers planned to venture back on Wednesday to salvage what they can.
The Keys had been largely evacuated by the time Irma barreled ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph (215 km/hour).
Initial damage assessments found 25 percent of homes there were destroyed and 65 percent suffered major damage, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said.
‘SAILBOAT IN OUR BACKYARD’
Authorities allowed re-entry to the islands of Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada for residents and business owners on Tuesday. The extent of the devastation took many of the first returnees by surprise.
“I expected some fence lines to be down and some debris,” said Orlando Morejon, 51, a trauma surgeon from Miami as he hacked away at a tree blocking his Islamorada driveway. “We were not expecting to find someone else’s sailboat in our backyard.”
A boil water notice was in effect for the Keys late on Tuesday, while its airports remained closed to commercial flights.
Several major airports in Florida that had halted passenger operations resumed with limited service on Tuesday, including Miami International, one of the busiest in the United States….