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Evacuees begin long road back to Florida Keys after Irma's devastation

  • Hurricane Irma evacuees began returning to the storm-ravaged Florida Keys on Tuesday to find homes ripped apart and businesses coated in seaweed.
  • An estimated 25 percent of all dwellings were destroyed.
  • The death toll from Irma climbed to more than five dozen. Of those, 43 were killed in the Caribbean and at least 18 in the Southeastern U.S.

Evacuees from Hurricane Irma returned early Wednesday to parts of the Florida Keys, which remained largely without electricity and communications in the wake of the deadly storm.

Categorized as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record when it rampaged through the Caribbean, Irma killed more than 60 people, officials said.

At least 18 people died in Florida and nearby states, and destruction was widespread in the Keys, where Irma made initial U.S. landfall on Sunday and became the second major hurricane to strike the mainland this season.

Authorities barred re-entry to most of the Keys to allow more time to restore electricity and medical service and bring water, food and fuel. Some 10,000 Keys residents stayed put when the storm hit and may ultimately need to be evacuated, according to officials.

"I don't have a house. I don't have a job. I have nothing," said Mercedes Lopez, 50, whose family fled north from the Keys town of Marathon on Friday and rode out the storm at an Orlando hotel, only to learn their home was destroyed, along with the gasoline station where Lopez worked.

"We came here, leaving everything at home, and we go back to nothing," Lopez said. Four families from Marathon including hers planned to venture back on Wednesday to salvage what they could.

The Keys were largely evacuated by the time Irma barreled ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph (215 km/hour).

Initial damage assessments found that 25 percent of homes there were destroyed and 65 percent suffered major damage, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said.

Long warned that life on the Keys would remain tough.

"There are numerous bridges of support that have to be inspected before we can put commodities down the roadway to support citizens," Brock told CNN. "Communication is lacking in many portions of Monroe County. Citizens are frustrated about not being able to get the support they need right now. That's exactly why we asked them to leave."

A resort island chain that stretches from the tip of the state into the Gulf of Mexico, the Keys are connected by a bridges and causeways along a narrow route of nearly 100 miles (160 km).

'Everything is gone'

Irma wreaked total devastation in parts of the Caribbean, where most of the deaths occurred.

The storm destroyed about one-third of the buildings on the Dutch-governed portion of the eastern Caribbean island of St. Martin, the Dutch Red Cross said on Tuesday.

People pose for a selfie as a boat sits onshore in a park after being beached by storm surge from Hurricane Irma in Coconut Grove, Florida, September 11, 2017.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
People pose for a selfie as a boat sits onshore in a park after being beached by storm surge from Hurricane Irma in Coconut Grove, Florida, September 11, 2017.

People who fled their homes in hard-hit islands including St. Martin and the U.S. Virgin Islands that were all but cut off from the world for days arrived in San Juan late Tuesday.

Michael Benson, 65, of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, said he lost everything.

"My house, my business, both my vehicles, everything is gone," said Benson, who was stopping in San Juan before continuing to Boston to seek refuge with his wife's brother.

"But we have life. We rode out that horrible storm in a shower that I had reinforced after Hurricane Marilyn," Benson added. "I told the man (who installed the shower), I told him, 'If the hurricane takes the rest of my house, I want this shower sticking up out of that slab like the last tooth in the mouth of a bum. And sure enough that's what's left."

Across Florida and nearby states, some 5 million homes and businesses were without power on Wednesday, down from a peak of 7.8 million on Monday.

Florida's largest utility, Florida Power & Light Co, said western parts of Florida might be without electricity until Sept. 22.

Irma hit the United States about two weeks after Hurricane Harvey plowed into Houston, killing about 60 and causing some $180 billion in damage, mostly from flooding.