After Heavy Damage, Florida Keys Residents Anxiously Wait To Return Home

Sep 12, 2017
Originally published on September 12, 2017 11:12 pm

Some residents of Key Largo are being allowed back in Tuesday morning, but the Florida Keys are still largely without power, water, medical service and cell service. Most Keys residents are anxiously waiting to hear when they can return home, and others who stayed despite mandatory evacuations remain stranded there. More than 80 percent of customers in the Keys are currently are without power.

The Keys received some of the worst of Hurricane Irma's wind and rain as the storm reached the U.S. mainland. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that 25 percent of the homes in the Florida Keys have been destroyed and 65 percent have sustained damage.

It is now virtually impossible to reach much of the area by car. From a flyover aboard a Coast Guard C-130 Monday evening, extensive damage to the Florida Keys could be seen, particularly on Marathon Island. Houses were wrecked, roofs ripped off.

Rear Adm. Peter Brown described "significant house damage," trailer homes "heavily damaged" and "a number of boats that had been tossed about, some still on water and some thrown up on land."

Mobile home parks in particular were devastated, with trailers flipped over and tossed around. Boats are capsized, and many have broken free of their moorings and been thrown ashore. A few cars could be seen driving around on the streets, including a solitary vehicle traveling west from Marathon along the Seven Mile Bridge.

There are now reports that people may need to be evacuated off the islands because it could take weeks to restore water and power. The Defense Department has moved the USS Abraham Lincoln to help with those evacuations.

Anxious to return home

The mood is tense in the mostly deserted parking lot of the Homestead-Miami Speedway — police are diverting people who are trying to get back to the Keys there to avoid traffic from building up at a nearby roadblock. There are no services, but some people, like Key Largo resident Mark Schweiss, decided to camp out anyway.

Schweiss evacuated to Orlando during the hurricane and then drove back south to try to get back to his home. The frustration that he is not allowed back in can be heard in his voice. He says his house is OK and the road leading to it is passable.

"The weather people said it was coming down my driveway for three days. You know, I'm not stupid, but I thought I could get back," the 42-year resident of the Keys said. "I'll never leave again."

Despite a lack of services and a sundown-to-sunup curfew in Key West, there were a number of civilians seen driving and walking around the island.

In a driving tour of the area surrounding Naval Air Station Key West, many roads could be seen blocked by trees and downed power lines. Less sturdy buildings lost roofs or had doors blown in. At a gas station, the canopy and pumps were crumpled into a heap.

Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, whose district includes the Florida Keys, said aboard the plane Monday that "it's clear that there's a lot of work to be done and this community's going to need a lot of support." He added that there are some "logistical challenges" in getting goods and services to the Keys. At a news conference Monday afternoon, he called for a "robust" funding plan for FEMA and said Congress can't fund FEMA "month to month."

"To see the Florida Keys dark so to speak, as such a vibrant exciting part of our country that I'm blessed to represent," Curbelo said, "to just see everything at a standstill, and Key West as a ghost town, that was very striking for me."

"Heartbreaking" destruction

Innkeeper Rachel Price evacuated to Cincinnati but has seen photos of her destroyed inn on Facebook. "Pretty much the entire first floor of my hotel is gone," she told NPR's All Things Considered. "And the part that faces the ocean has two huge holes on the ocean side."

She has owned the teal White Sands Inn in Marathon, Fla., with her mother for 18 years. "My pool is pretty much — most of the beach is inside the pool. ... It just looks like it's covered completely with sand."

"It was heartbreaking," she adds. "I kind of expected it, but to just see [the photos] — really heartbreaking."

Price says she does want to rebuild — but for now she is anxiously waiting to find out the timeline for roads to be cleared and gas to be restored so she can return. But her first priority, she says, is to get on the phone and start informing her guests and canceling reservations.

"All our guests are our family members," she says. "You know [we will] rebuild it better, get them back. They like to call it their little paradise."

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Today we're getting a better sense of the scope and impact of the most powerful hurricane ever recorded. Irma killed at least 46 people as the storm passed through the Caribbean and mainland U.S. FEMA estimates that a quarter of all the homes in the Florida Keys were destroyed. NPR's Connor Donevan viewed some of that damage in a Coast Guard flight and joins us now. Hi, Connor.


SHAPIRO: So you flew over the Keys, the area of Florida that was hit the hardest. What did you see?

DONEVAN: I should start with the caveat that the view from 2,000 feet up is not perfect. But on our flight, which took us over Marathon in the middle Keys and then down over the lower Keys - which were some of the hardest-hit areas - we saw houses with roofs ripped off or caved in, flooded streets, boats that had been basically just ripped out of their moorings and tossed onto land. The thing that really stuck with me were these mobile home parks. The trailers in them were just basically flipped, thrown against one another. From the sky it looked almost like someone had just taken a giant box of Tic Tacs and spilled them across a table. What I wasn't able to see was the kind of damage you saw after, say, Hurricane Andrew where there were just those aerial photos that showed block after block reduced to rubble.

SHAPIRO: There's just one main road connecting all of these islands to each other. Could you tell whether it was intact?

DONEVAN: Right. We've heard that two stretches of that road have been washed out. But we did see kind of a tiny glimmer of hope as we flew over a different stretch of that road, the Seven Mile Bridge that connects Marathon to the lower Keys. And on that road, as we flew over, we saw a single vehicle inching its way east to west further into the Keys. Rear Admiral Peter Brown with the Coast Guard, who was kind of narrating this for us, said he took that as a good sign.

PETER BROWN: There we go. We've got traffic on the bridge. The traffic is light, but there is traffic.

DONEVAN: So he's referring to kind of how important of an artery this bridge in the Keys is and how important it's going to be as they start rebuilding. Although we should add that Governor Rick Scott did say that people should not be driving on these bridges, that they still needed to be inspected.

SHAPIRO: When that Coast Guard plane touched down and you got out, what did you see?

DONEVAN: You could see a lot of damage that wasn't visible from above. There were roads that were totally blocked by downed trees or power lines. We passed one gas station whose canopy and pumps were basically crumpled into a heap. And again, you know, it was even more dramatic to see up close those boats thrown up on land. The other thing we saw is a lot of people who hadn't evacuated, people who were just kind of driving around, seemed to be kind of going about their business even though this island is without power, water or cell service.

SHAPIRO: There were some Florida lawmakers with you on this trip - both senators, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, also House Republican Carlos Curbelo. What did you hear from them?

DONEVAN: So when we got off the plane, I asked Curbelo in particular - he represents this district that includes the Florida Keys - what stuck with him the most from what we'd seen. And he said it was this bright, vibrant place, the Florida Keys, that had basically just gone dark.

CARLOS CURBELO: To just see everything kind of at a standstill and for Key West to be a ghost town, that was very striking for me.

DONEVAN: He also emphasized just how much help this area is going to need and the logistical challenges it's facing. Much of the Keys is still without power, water, cell service. And as maybe an illustration of just how far they have to go, as we were taking off from Naval Air Station Key West to come back to Miami, the runway didn't have power for lights. And so our tour went a little long. And we in fact almost got stuck on the island because we couldn't take off without daylight and we were coming up on sunset.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Connor Donevan speaking with us from Miami. Thanks, Connor.

DONEVAN: Thanks so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.