Evacuees from Hurricane Irma returned to the Florida Keys early on Wednesday, where the sunrise gave them a first glimpse of the devastation that has left countless homes and businesses in ruins.
Categorised 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 US landfall on Sunday to become the second major hurricane to strike the mainland this season.
About 5 million customers or about 10 million people were without power on Wednesday morning in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, down from a peak of over 7.8 million customers on Monday, local utilities said.
A resort island chain that stretches from the tip of the state into the Gulf of Mexico, the Keys are connected by bridges and causeways along a narrow route of nearly 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 her’s ventured back on Wednesday to salvage what they could.
The Keys had been largely evacuated by the time Irma barelled ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 215 km/hour.
Initial damage assessments found 25 per cent of homes there were destroyed and 65 per cent suffered major damage, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said.
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.
All 42 bridges in Monroe County, which includes the Keys, were deemed safe and one of two washed out sections of US 1 Roadway was now navigable, the county said on its Twitter account.
At the end of Islamorada, roughly the halfway point of the Keys, police at a checkpoint turned around returning residents seeking to travel farther south and waved through utility crews, law enforcement and healthcare workers.