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."