Order is returning to the Florida Keys, but services remain scarce

Residents of the Miami area and the Florida Keys streamed north in packed vehicles, anxiously rushing to dodge Hurricane Irma as the deadly Category 4 storm took aim at the state's eastern coast after devastating the Caribbean. SOURCE: Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Associated Press

(CNN) — Determining how badly Hurricane Irma wrecked the Florida Keys may lie in what constitutes good news coming from the island chain.

A couple of grocery stores are open limited hours in Key Largo. If you have a bucket of water, you can flush your toilet in Key West. Fuel is arriving, but in certain areas there’s no electricity to pump it. The Keys remain under curfew, and there have been only a handful of looters arrested. Roads and airports are cleared but largely restricted to transporting rescuers and relief supplies.

The death toll as of midday Wednesday was eight, along with 40 injuries, according to Monroe County officials, who characterized the number of casualties as “very small.”

In Big Pine Key, about 10 miles east of where Irma made landfall in Cudjoe Key, devastation was everywhere. No structure was left untouched, and many were among the estimated 25% of Florida Keys homes that were destroyed.

Residents begin returning home

Still, Richard Tabacco, whose home saw only minor damage, was in a glass-half-full kind of mood Wednesday. His boss had given him a broken generator, which he repaired and connected to his home, he said.

“We slept in my bedroom with air conditioning last night. I’ve got battery-powered fans, hot coffee, food. The milk is cold again. It’s a good day,” he said.

Yes, Big Pine Key absorbed the brunt of Irma’s gusts and torrents, but “we’ve got all our hands and toes, all my family members,” he said. “Things can be replaced. You can’t replace families.”

But don’t be misled by his sunny demeanor. Though he and his family are living in relative comfort, Tabacco warned his fellow Conch Republicans to stay away and let first responders finish their work.

“Don’t even bother. We shouldn’t be here. There’s nothing. Services are a long ways away. We’re truly on our own. There’s nothing here. There’s no gas. There’s no water. There’s no stores. There’s no electricity. There’s no cell phone service. Just stay away for about two weeks,” he said. “Y’all can come back later.”

The county has yet to estimate the level of destruction, either in percentages or dollars, but at this point they’re prioritizing life over property.

Rescue teams, law enforcement and military personnel continue going door-to-door and should be able to cover about 90% of the most devastated areas — Big Pine and Cudjoe keys, among them — by sometime Wednesday, the county said in a news release.

Most remain without power

The Upper Keys, which include Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada, are bouncing back quicker than the Middle and Lower Keys, likely owing to their distance from Irma’s eye and proximity to the Florida mainland.

Farther down the island chain, utilities and communications remain spotty or nonexistent. The tail end of the archipelago, however, from Key West eastward to Big Coppitt Key, appears to have fared better than the Middle Keys.

“Things look real damaged from the air, but when you clear the trees and all the debris, it’s not much damage to the houses,” said Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, who lives in Key West.

With the exception of some missing shutters, Carruthers’ home, which was built in 1889, survived largely unscathed, she said in a news release.

Keys Energy Service says it will likely restore power to the 9-mile stretch between Key West and Big Coppitt in the next seven to 10 days, whereas areas east of Big Coppitt should plan for a month without electricity, “but hope for sooner.”

Irma leaves millions without power

As of Wednesday roughly 7% of the utility’s customers, situated between Key West and Big Pine Key, had power. Florida Electric Cooperatives Association, which serves the majority of the Keys, said 30% of their customers had their electricity restored.

The biggest hurdle Keys Energy Services faces is restoring infrastructure, as it is working to repair about 300 downed power lines, according to the county.

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was slated to arrive in the Keys on Wednesday, along with Gov. Rick Scott. Long had a message for Keys resident irked by the pace of recovery.

“If the citizens are frustrated about not being able to get the support they need right now, that’s exactly why we asked them to leave,” he said. “We are doing everything we can and working very closely with Gov. Scott to try and get there and alleviate the situation and stabilize that situation in Monroe County as quickly as we can.”

Long slog to recovery

Monroe County is indeed reporting progress every day. Eighty percent of roads in the Keys are cleared of debris, and the Overseas Highway, which runs 113 miles from the tip of mainland Florida to Key West, has been cleared for travel. That includes all 42 bridges and two 300-foot patches, on Lower Matecumbe and Bahia Honda key, that were washed out by Irma.

In Key West, officials expect roads to be cleared by late Wednesday, City Manager Jim Scholl said. Officials are still restricting re-entry to residents and business owners in the Upper Keys, from Lower Matecumbe Key eastward.

“Did anybody think after the epic hurricane that we experienced that our streets are as clear as they are now?” Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi asked in a news release. “We’ve been very fortunate public works and everyone in on this effort has been doing a heck of a job.”

A boil-water notice remains in effect, but the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority reports the main transmission line delivering water from the mainland is intact. The utility had restored water pressure from the Upper Keys all the way to Stock Island, just east of Key West.

“Most of the homes and businesses not receiving water in the Upper and Middle Keys is mostly due to broken lines in people’s yards that were were ripped up by fallen trees,” the county said.

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Hospitals are still struggling to become fully operational, but Mariners Hospital in Tavernier has opened its emergency room, and disaster medical assistance teams are scheduled to set up in Key West and Marathon sometime Wednesday.

Commercial flights have yet to take off, but the island chain’s three airports (one of them military) are open to flights transporting manpower and relief supplies. C-130s have been departing and arriving “constantly,” carrying resources, including water and food, Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt said in a news release.

Other signs of progress include Verizon and AT&T crews working to restore cell service to the islands and officials continuing to establish distribution points to hand out food and water. Some of the 2,000 National Guardsmen in the Keys are assisting in the latter.

Mike Wallace, who rode out Irma house-sitting a friend’s home in Big Pine Key, saw Irma’s wrath firsthand when 8 feet of storm surge rushed into the residence. On Wednesday, he was witnessing the suffering and destruction all around him, he told CNN.

“We’re slowly getting supplies down here, but we really need communication services and food and fuel desperately. There’s a lot of people here that are really suffering,” he said. “Fuel and communications is the greatest need, and the food’s been trickling in.”