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Hurricane Irma leaves the Florida Keys bowed but unbroken

  • Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc across the Florida Keys.
  • "I'm overwhelmed. I don't know where to start," one Key Largo resident says.
  • But residents along the 120-mile string of tropical islands south of mainland Florida are showing resilience.

In the wee hours of the morning, the cars lined up at the entrance to the Florida Keys. Police officers from multiple agencies blocked cars, RVs, tractor trailers and trucks pulling boats from entering the 120-mile string of tropical islands south of mainland Florida.

Highway 1 is clear from Florida City to Key West, but major debris still clutters the road shoulders.

At 6:56 a.m., four minutes before the curfew officially lifted for the day, officers began waving through semis loaded with FEMA supplies or loaded with heavy construction equipment. Drivers who were able to show proof of residency in the Upper Keys were allowed to pass; others were directed to do a U-turn.

As we traveled from Key Largo, through Islamorada, Marathon and to Key West, we saw extensive damage on every island. Entire neighborhoods seemingly demolished. Irma's wrath seemed to take its worst toll on mobile home developments and RV Parks.

I met a couple in Key Largo who told me of evacuating their mother from Seabreeze. The frail-looking elderly woman in the passenger seat could only nod and hold back tears.

Across Highway 1, I met a homeowner who had escaped to Hollywood, Florida, but looked out — stunned — at the damage to his property. Cars had floated in the storm surge, his boat, still there but surrounded by debris. "I'm overwhelmed. I don't know where to start," he told me. "I guess I'll put on my shoes."

A boat washed ashore in Key Largo after the region was hit by Hurricane Irma.
Contessa Brewer | CNBC
A boat washed ashore in Key Largo after the region was hit by Hurricane Irma.

At every stop, we saw boats wedged between houses, yachts half submerged, vessels dry-docked by Irma right on the roadway.

Iconic tourist spots along the way looked desperately damaged. The Theater of the Sea conservation park in Islamorada was strewn with downed palms and rubble. The Cheeca Lodge, host to presidents, movie stars and your everyday rich-and-famous, sustained extensive wind damage. Massive old trees toppled, blocking the road into its main building. At the pool, the cabanas were ripped and palm fronds covered the pool deck and filled the pool. But ceiling fans still circulated air and I could hear motors running.

"Yeah, it's probably on the main line," Neil from Wisconsin told me. He joined a convoy of utility workers heading for Florida three days before Irma made U.S. landfall. Now, they're sleeping in their trucks, preferring that over a dorm of sorts in the back of a semitrailer. They're working 16 hour days alongside an army of tree trimmers to restore electricity to the island chain.

It's one of the biggest obstacles to allowing people back in. There's limited power, fuel and cellular service. At the Mobil Tavernier on Highway 1, the air conditioning was running, there was gasoline at the pump and one working phone landline. The owner asked me to tell people they could make their calls inside the mini-mart. She was offered free coffee, and storm-weary people seemed desperate and grateful to accept it.

Leaving her station, cell service immediately ceased. AT&T and Verizon are installing portable cellular towers. But Sprint phones are in high demand and short supply since they seemed to supply service for much more of the Florida Keys.

Satellite imagery of Bay Drive just east of Key West, Florida, after being struck by Hurricane Irma.
DigitalGlobe | Getty Images
Satellite imagery of Bay Drive just east of Key West, Florida, after being struck by Hurricane Irma.

In Marathon, a massive relief response is underway. The airport is open for aircraft delivering relief supplies. Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters unloaded pallets of bottled water, where they were then stored along a chain-link fence in the searing heat and relentless sun. Nearby the Emergency Operations Command and the Monroe County Sheriff's Department hosted a parade of officials, contractors, media and residents hoping to find a working phone. One working landline was made available to the public.

Back on Highway 1, my view of gas stations was blocked by roofs that no longer sheltered gas pumps, but instead lay at awkward angles on the ground, like some post-modern sculptures. Yet crab traps stood stacked in their orderly rows, unfazed by a monster storm.

Newer homes constructed according to building codes since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 largely fared well — with their hurricane-resistant windows and living spaces on a second level. But as with other parts of South Florida, the wind damage took its toll on the trees.

At the historic Hemingway House in Key West, the entrance was blocked by massive trees. The landscaping took a big hit, but the staff told me, there was no damage to the interior.

Branches knocked down on the Ernest Hemingway House property in Key West after Hurricane Irma swept through the area.
Contessa Brewer | CNBC
Branches knocked down on the Ernest Hemingway House property in Key West after Hurricane Irma swept through the area.

On Duval Street, most of the bars remain boarded up, but the streets are clear, thanks to a very small team of city public works employees and neighbors with gumption and brawn.

"We're still in search and recovery mode," a law enforcement officer told me when I flagged him down to help a distraught woman who had just returned to her demolished home, her kitchen exposed like a film or television set. In Spanish, she told me she doesn't even have clothes or shoes left. She asked me where she could find FEMA.

"Not in Key West yet," the officer told me. "But the Salvation Army's here and she can get clothes there." He immediately called in a Spanish interpreter to help communicate with the woman.

Most of those residing in the Florida Keys evacuated, and now they're stuck at a checkpoint just past Marathon, many pulling off to the road's shoulder, hoping at any moment, they'll be allowed access. The estimated 4,000 who stayed in Key West are surviving on their storm rations and public toilets.

"We cannot support another mouth in Key West," City General Manager Jim Scholl said on a conference call on Monday.

Yet, neighbor after neighbor in Key West bristled when I mentioned Sen. Marco Rubio's push for another mandatory evacuation in the Lower Keys. He tweeted, "No water, no energy and poor access is recipe for big problems."

People who live here year-round consider themselves hearty, unbreakable citizens of The Conch Republic. They have a certain resilience that rivals their commitment to tasting every last drop of joy life has to offer. So, on Duval Street, a crowd of sun-weathered patrons crowded tables on the sidewalk outside a single open bar, popping open cold beers and waving at this passing correspondent, inviting me to join them. Another man rode by, shirtless, on his bicycle. I yelled out, "How'd you do in Irma?" He cracked a wide grin and said, "We beat this bitch."

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