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Residents begin returning to storm-battered Florida Keys


Damaged houses in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys (Washington Post/AP)

Damaged houses in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys (Washington Post/AP)

Damaged houses in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys (Washington Post/AP)

Residents have been allowed to return to some islands in the hurricane-slammed Florida Keys as officials try to piece together the scope of Irma's destruction and rush aid to the drenched and debris-strewn state.

Two days after the storm roared into the Keys with 130mph winds, the full extent of the destruction is still a question mark because communications and access are cut off in many areas.

But residents and business owners from Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada near the mainland were allowed back for their first look.

The Lower Keys - including the chain's most distant and most populous island, Key West, with 27,000 people - are still off-limits, with a roadblock where the single highway to the farther islands was washed out.

Corey Smith, a delivery driver who rode out the hurricane in Key Largo, said power was out on the island, there was very limited fuel and supermarkets were closed. Branches and other brush blocked some roads.

"They're shoving people back to a place with no resources," he said by telephone. "It's just going to get crazy pretty quick."

But he added that people returning to Key Largo should be relieved that many buildings escaped major damage.

Seven deaths in Florida have been blamed on Irma, along with two in Georgia and two in South Carolina. At least 35 people were killed in the Caribbean.

An estimated 13 million Florida residents were without electricity - two-thirds of the state - as sweltering heat returned across the peninsula in the storm's wake.

More than 180,000 people huddled in shelters in Florida, and officials warned it could take weeks for electricity to be restored to everyone.

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"I know for our entire state, especially the Keys, it's going to be a long road," governor Rick Scott said.

Off Florida's southern tip, authorities were stopping people to check documentation such as proof of residency or business ownership before allowing them back into the Upper Keys. All three hospitals on the island chain were still closed.

After flying over the Keys on Monday, the governor described overturned mobile homes, washed-ashore boats and other damage. A navy aircraft carrier was due to anchor off Key West to help in the search-and-rescue effort.

The Keys are linked by 42 bridges that have to be checked for safety before motorists can be allowed on the farther islands, officials said. County officials said crews are working to reopen the major US 1 route as quickly as possible.

In a parting blow to the state, the storm caused record flooding in the Jacksonville area.

Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said 356 people were rescued from the floodwaters on Monday. The sheriff's office said it hopes "people who had their lives saved yesterday will take evacuation orders seriously in the future".


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