Florida Keys facing potential ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Irma aftermath

Military crews were on standby with body bags for possible fatalities in the Keys while millions remain without power across Florida.

The horrific scale of Hurricane Irma’s trail of devastation across Florida has becoming evident as the remnants of the most powerful storm in Atlantic history limped north into Georgia, turned towards Alabama, and was downgraded to a tropical depression.

Daylight on Monday exposed the extent of the damage in the hardest-hit areas of the Florida Keys and the south-west coast, whipped by the worst of Irma’s 130mph winds and deadly seawater surge during the storm’s double landfall.

10 deaths were reported across the US, with six fatalities in Florida, three in Georgia and one in South Carolina as a result of the storm. In Haiti, the country’s civil protection agency reported its first death, bringing the Caribbean death toll to 37.

Florida governor Rick Scott reported a scene of devastation in the Keys, the low-lying island chain to the south of the mainland, after an aerial tour at lunchtime.

“The water is not working, the sewer is not working, and there’s no electricity, so it’s very tough,” he told reporters. He said he had seen boats carried into homes, mobile home parks destroyed and major damage to even the sturdiest buildings.

“My heart goes out to the people on the Keys. I mean, it’s devastation. I just hope everybody survived. It’s horrible, what we saw.”

Scott said it could be weeks or months before parts of the Keys are habitable again. “We’ve got to get our first responders to the Keys, we’ve got to get the water going again, we’ve got to get the power going again. It’s going to take a lot of time. Especially for the Keys, it’s going to be a long road,” he said.

Earlier, officials in Monroe County warned of a potential “humanitarian crisis” in the Keys with military crews on standby with body bags for possible fatalities among those who failed to heed a mandatory evacuation order.

The Key West city commisioner, Sam Kaufman, issued a report on Monday night that food, water and fuel were at “critically low” levels and 200 power poles had been downed.

Communications across the Keys were cut off for much of Monday, meaning the extent of the damage will become clearer from 7am Tuesday, when residents will be allowed back into Monroe County in the upper Keys.

In Jacksonville, Florida, there was historic flooding on Monday with rescue crews racing to reach homeowners stranded in neighbourhoods submerged by thigh-high water.

Charleston, South Carolina, was also swamped by storm surge. Police reported dozens of roads were impassable and the Post and Courier newspaper showed photographs of residents in boats paddling down roads in kayaks.

Elsewhere in Florida, other severe flooding occurred in Orlando, and Everglades City, a small crab fishing town of about 2,000 people that was completely awash when the storm surge occurred on Sunday. On Monday, water marks up to about 5ft were visible on the walls of houses. City Hall, remarkably grand for a tiny community, was an island, encircled by a lapping pool.

In Marco Island on the west coast, where Irma made its second Florida landfall on Sunday, and in Naples to the north, authorities were assessing the impact of Irma’s storm surge, although Scott said it appeared the damage was not so significant there.

The hurricane’s reach stretched across Florida. More than 7 million people were without power, 2 million of them in communities around the cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Reports of property damage and beach erosion were widespread and pictures emerge of yachts smashed to pieces in wrecked marinas.

More than 6 million people, evacuated from their homes as Irma bore down on the state on Saturday as a deadly category 5 monster, anxiously awaited news about when they could return.

Donald Trump, speaking at a 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon on Monday, said the government stood behind the victims of Irma and other recent disasters including Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas last month.

“These are storms of catastrophic severity and we are marshalling the full resources of the federal government to help our fellow Americans in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee and all of those wonderful places and states in harm’s way,” he said.

We’re drawing every resource we can, locally, the state, the federal government. We have so much damage now
Governor Rick Scott

“When Americans are in need, Americans pull together. And we are one country. And when we face hardship we emerge closer, stronger and more determined together.”

Teams from the federal emergency management agency began work in Florida to assist the relief and recovery effort, which some experts estimate could reach $290bn, combined with the cost of Hurricane Harvey’s strike.

Brock Long, the Fema administrator, has assured Florida officials the agency has enough money “for a few more months” but would need additional long-term funding to deal with the aftermath of Harvey and Irma.

Residents wanting to return to the Keys were turned back by police on Monday, with the Miami Herald reporting tempers fraying at the roadblocks among citizens wanting to check on their properties.

Residents who remained in the Keys as Irma made first landfall at Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles from Key West, said the devastation was massive.

“About 5 o’clock in the morning when it really started to blow, the trees started snapping and we saw roofs getting ripped off,” Yeorgo Kapriris, who lives on Summerland Key, told the Miami Herald. “The water came up about 5ft, we lost our van, we lost everything.”

On Miami Beach and in downtown Miami, which suffered significant flooding in the business district of Brickell Avenue, maintenance crews were cleaning debris from the roads as the waters receded.

The entire south-east region remained under a city-by-city curfew to allow recovery crews to work and to free up law enforcement resources. In Broward and Miami-Dade counties, authorities reported more than two dozen arrests for looting.

Fears that south-east Florida and its 6 million residents would receive a first full-on strike from a major storm since Hurricane Wilma wrecked the area in 2005 eased when Irma took a late veer to the west on Saturday after moving north from the Cuban coastline.

Signing a federal major disaster declaration for Florida on Saturday, Trump acknowledged: “We may have been a bit lucky that it went on the west. It may not have been quite as destructive.”

In Broward County, gusts of almost 100mph were recorded, accorded to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC), before reporting equipment was blown away.

Barbara Sharief, the county mayor, told residents: “When we were in line for a direct hit from this monster storm we were bracing ourselves for the worst. Now I urge you to let the county’s recovery team do its jobs to ensure our community is safe before you resume your normal activities.”