Millions of Florida residents were without power on Tuesday as the remnants of Hurricane Irma spun northwest into the US mainland, drenching the region and causing rivers to overflow.
Most of the Sunshine State, however, appeared to have dodged forecasts of catastrophic damage despite dire early warnings.
But Irma’s overall death toll jumped to at least 40 after Cuba reported that 10 people had been killed there over the weekend.
Irma roared ashore as a powerful Category 4 hurricane when it hit the far southern Florida Keys on Sunday, tearing boats from their moorings, uprooting palm trees and downing power lines, after devastating a string of Caribbean islands.
By the time it hit the peninsula the storm had been downgraded, and by late on Monday it had weakened further to a tropical depression.
The US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln has arrived off Florida’s east coast and two amphibious assault ships will arrive later to help in the Keys.
Local authorities told around 90,000 residents of Miami Beach and from some parts of Florida Keys they could go home but warned it may prudent not to remain there.
“Returning residents should consider that there are limited services. Most areas are still without power and water. Cell service is spotty. And most gas stations are still closed,” the Monroe County of Board of County Commissioners said in a posting on its Facebook page.
Across the Caribbean, hard-hit island residents struggled to get back on their feet as Britain, France, the Netherlands and the United States increased relief efforts.
Floridians who spent an anxious night huddled indoors were venturing out on Monday to survey the damage, which in most cases were not as bad as feared.
“If this had been a Category 4 hurricane the whole scenario would have been completely different,” said Bob Lutz, a 62-year-old business owner.
More than 6.5 million customers in Florida were without power, however, and Governor Rick Scott said the island chain known as the Keys had suffered widespread damage.
“It’s horrible what we saw,” Scott said after flying over the island chain aboard a Coast Guard helicopter.
He said the water, electricity and sewage systems in the Keys were non-operational, and that trailer parks had been “overturned.”
“We now go through the much longer phase, which is the recovery phase,” said Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “And believe me, folks, some of this is going to take a while, especially power restoration.”
Most Keys residents evacuated from the low-lying tourist archipelago, known for its fishing, scuba diving and boating, before Irma struck.
The storm felled trees and left debris and vehicles strewn across the streets. But concrete homes appeared to have withstood the powerful gusts.
The National Hurricane Centre downgraded Irma to a tropical depression in its 0300 GMT Tuesday bulletin. Irma’s maximum sustained winds dropped to 56 kmph, and the storm’s eye was in western Georgia, and expected to cross into eastern Alabama and Tennessee later.
“Additional weakening is forecast, and Irma is… likely to dissipate by Wednesday evening,” the NHC said.