Hurricane Irma evacuees from the Florida Keys began returning to the storm-ravaged island chain on Tuesday to find homes shredded like soda cans and businesses coated in seaweed.
Estimated 25 percent of all dwellings in the Florida Keys were destroyed. The death toll from Irma, previously ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record and the second major hurricane to strike the U.S. mainland this season, climbed to 43 in the Caribbean, with at least 13 more killed in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Destruction was widespread in the Keys, a resort archipelago stretching southwest from the tip of the Florida Peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico and connected by a single, narrow highway and a series of bridges and causeways along a nearly 100-mile (160-km) route.
Initial assessments found 25 percent of homes in the Keys demolished and 65 percent with major damage, according to Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“Basically every house in the Keys was impacted in some way or another,” he told reporters.
The islands had largely been evacuated by the time Irma barreled over Cudjoe Key on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane, packing maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour and a fierce tidal surge. Two days later authorities began allowing limited re-entry for residents and business owners who had fled the islands of Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada.
More than 6 million homes and businesses were still without power in Florida and nearby states, down from a peak of about 7.4 million on Monday. Florida’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light, said western parts of the state might be without electricity until Sept. 22. 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 west of Florida. The Atlantic hurricane season runs through November.