ISLAMORADA, Fla. (Reuters) – Residents who returned to the Florida Keys archipelago on Tuesday found Hurricane Irma had shredded mobile homes like soda cans and coated businesses with seaweed, while the death toll rose for the second major hurricane to hit the United States this year.
Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record before it arrived in the United States, killed 43 people in its rampage through the Caribbean and at least 12 in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
On Islamorada Key, one of just three islands where authorities allowed people to return on Tuesday, the aluminum walls of trailer homes had been ripped open by the storm, exposing insulation, bedrooms and kitchens to the sunlight.
At the Caloosa Cove Resort and Marina, concrete pilings meant to hold the dock in place had been knocked sideways and three manatees lolled in the water, drinking from an outflow pump that was spitting water from the side of the dock.
Marilyn Ramos, 44, spent the morning cleaning away the sand and seaweed that had covered her Cuban restaurant Havanos when she arrived early Tuesday.
“I‘m trying to stay calm and see how we can work through this,” said Ramos, who employs 30 people at her two restaurants. “It’s devastating.”
Local authorities told around 90,000 residents of Miami Beach and people from some parts of the Keys they could go home but warned it might not be prudent to remain there. Irma arrived in the Keys on Sunday with sustained winds of up to 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour).
“It’s going to take some time to let people back into their homes, particularly in the Florida Keys,” said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The island chain curves southwest from Key Largo to Key West, linked by bridges and causeways along a nearly 100-mile (160-km) route.
More than 6 million homes and businesses were still without power in Florida and nearby states. Florida’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light, said western parts of the state might be without electricity until Sept. 22.
‘SO MANY AREAS’ FLOODED
The city of Jacksonville, in Florida’s northeast, was recovering from heavy flooding.
“There are so many areas that you would never have thought would have flooded that have flooded,” Florida Governor Rick Scott told reporters.
Irma destroyed about one-third of the buildings on the Dutch-ruled portion of the eastern Caribbean island of St. Martin en route to Florida, the Dutch Red Cross said on Tuesday.
Irma hit the United States soon after Hurricane Harvey, which plowed into Houston late last month, killing about 60 and causing some $180 billion in damage, largely through flooding.
The U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was off Florida’s east coast and two amphibious assault ships were en route to help in the Keys.
Several major airports in Florida that halted passenger operations due to Irma began limited service on Tuesday, including Miami International, one of the busiest U.S. airports.
Insured property losses in Florida from Irma were expected to run from $20 billion to $40 billion, catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimated.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told a New York investor conference that the storm would ultimately boost the economy by sparking rebuilding.
“There clearly is going to be an impact on GDP in the short run, we will make it up in the long run,” Mnuchin said. “As we rebuild, that will help GDP … It won’t have a bad impact on the economy.”
DEATHS DURING CLEANUP
Several of the deaths caused by Irma occurred as people started cleaning up and making repairs.
A 55-year-old man died Monday in Tampa, Florida, while using a chainsaw in a tree during storm cleanup, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said.
A man died in Worth County, Georgia, on Monday while repairing the roof of a shed during heavy winds, a National Weather Service report said.
A man was found dead in Winter Garden, Florida, after being electrocuted by a downed power line, local police said.
One man in South Carolina was killed by a falling tree limb and another died in a traffic accident, officials said. A city employee in Columbia, South Carolina, died Monday after being critically injured in a car crash as he responded to a report of a downed tree, the city said.
Irma was downgraded to a tropical depression on Monday and would likely dissipate Tuesday evening, the National Hurricane Center said.
The center was monitoring another hurricane, Jose, which was spinning in the Atlantic about 700 miles (1,130 km) west of Florida. The Atlantic hurricane season runs through November.
Even as residents of the upper Florida Keys assessed the damage, others who lived on harder-hit islands further southwest waited to see what toll Irma had taken on their property.
Mechanic Dean Christiansen watched police turn around residents and wave through utility workers, law enforcement and health workers at a checkpoint at the end of Islamorada.
He had slept in his truck the last three nights and did not want to return to the mainland, saying, “I’ve just got to wait for someone I know to come along so I can get through here.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Orlando, Fla., Bernie Woodall, Ben Gruber and Zachary Fagenson in Miami, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Letitia Stein in Detroit, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C., Harriet McLeod in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. and Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Frances Kerry