Residents return to Florida Keys as Irma death toll increases
Residents returned yesterday 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 was expected to dissipate from yesterday evening, the US's National Hurricane Centre 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 were 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 215kmh 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 they warned them that it might not be prudent to remain there.
"This is going to be a frustrating event," Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told a news conference.
"It's going to take some time to let people back into their homes, particularly in the Florida Keys."
Millions of people were still without power in Florida.
The city of Jacksonville, in Florida's north-east, 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 yesterday.
The storm was the second major hurricane to hit the United States in a little more than two weeks.
Hurricane Harvey ploughed into Houston late last month, killing about 60 and wreaking some $180bn (€150bn) in damage, largely through flooding.
Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said 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 yesterday 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 yesterday, 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 neighbouring states, and said it could take weeks to fully restore service.