Irma death toll rises, evacuees return – Quarter of houses in Florida Keys destroyed

This photo provided by the Governor’s Press Office, shows Gov Rick Scott looking out of the window of a C-130 as he looks at damage to the Florida Keys during the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on Sept 11. (AP)

FLORIDA CITY/MIAMI, Sept 12, (Agencies): Residents returned on Tuesday to parts of the Florida Keys archipelago that was hammered by Hurricane Irma’s high winds and storm surge, while the death toll rose in the second major hurricane to hit the United States this year. Irma, which had rampaged through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, was downgraded to a tropical depression on Monday and would likely dissipate from Tuesday evening, the National Hurricane Center said. At its peak the storm prompted evacuation orders for 6.5 million people in Florida, the largest evacuation in modern US history.

Irma killed 43 people in the Caribbean and at least 11 in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. A local Florida official said there had been more deaths yet to be reported, particularly on the Florida Keys, where Irma arrived on Key Cudjoe as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour) on Sunday. 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.

“This is going to be a frustrating event. It’s going to take some time to let people back into their homes particularly in the Florida Keys,” Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told a news conference. Millions of people were still without power in Florida. 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 after a helicopter tour of the area. Irma devastated several Caribbean islands en route to Florida. It destroyed about one-third of the buildings on the Dutch-ruled portion of St Martin island, the Dutch Red Cross said on Tuesday.

The storm was the second major hurricane to hit the United States in a little more than two weeks. Hurricane Harvey plowed into Houston late last month, killing about 60 and wreaking some $180 billion in damage, largely through flooding. Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said on Monday that people had been killed in the Keys, which have nearly 80,000 permanent residents, but she did not have a count on how many. The US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was off Florida’s east coast and two amphibious assault ships were en route to help in the Keys.

Monroe County opened road access on Tuesday morning for residents and business owners from Key Largo, the main island at the upper end of the chain, as well as the towns of Tavernier and Islamorada farther to the south, fire officials said. No timetable was given for reopening the remainder of the Keys, which are linked by a series of causeways and bridges down to Key West, a popular tourist spot on the southern tip of Florida.

Several major airports in Florida that halted passenger operations due to Irma began limited service on Tuesday, including Miami International, one of the busiest US airports. Utility companies reported some 6.9 million homes and businesses were without electricity in Florida and neighboring states and said it could take weeks to fully restore service. Insured property losses in Florida from Irma were expected to run from $20 billion to $40 billion, catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimated.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told an investor conference in New York 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’s too early to tell what the exact estimates will be, but I think it won’t have a bad impact on the economy.” Several of the deaths caused by Irma came as people started cleaning up and making repairs. Meanwhile, Irma destroyed a quarter of the houses in the Florida Keys, where it first made landfall in the United States as a Category Four hurricane, the US emergency response chief said Tuesday. “Some of the initial estimates are — and this is why we asked people to evacuate, largely from storm surge — 25 percent of the houses in the Keys initially have been destroyed and 60 percent have been damaged,” FEMA director Brock Long said. “Basically every house in the Keys has been impacted some way or another,” Long told a news conference. Keys residents were just beginning to return but most of the low-lying archipelago south of Miami remains closed to traffic as authorities assessed conditions. Aerial views and television images show extensive damage awaits them in what in normal times is a palmy haven for tourists, boaters and scuba divers.

Irma made landfall Sunday on Cudjoe Key in the lower part of the Keys with winds of 130 miles (209 kms) per hour. In related news, over 100 high-risk prisoners escaped in the British Virgin Islands during Hurricane Irma, a British junior minister said on Tuesday, as he raised the death toll in British territories to nine. “We had a serious threat of a complete breakdown of law and order in the British Virgin islands (BVI),” junior foreign minister Alan Duncan told parliament. “The prison was breached, over 100 very serious prisoners escaped,” he said. Duncan said Royal Marines were deployed to cope with the threat but did not disclose how many prisoners had been recovered or how many were still at large.

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