September 11, 2017 / 6:50 PM / 3 months ago

Florida Keys evacuees told they cannot return home after Irma

FLORIDA CITY, Fla. (Reuters) - Residents who fled the Florida Keys in anticipation of Hurricane Irma’s wrath were told they could not return to their island homes on Monday, news that angered evacuees anxious to get back to assess the damage.

Authorities reported widespread damage on the archipelago off the tip of southern Florida. At the White House, U.S. Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said it could take weeks before many residents are able to return.

Miami-Dade police detective Alvaro Zabaleta, speaking on behalf of local officials, urged residents to head to a shelter on the mainland while authorities tried to restore power, water and medical service.

Some evacuees who had lingered at a police checkpoint in Florida City all day fumed, telling Zabaleta they needed to return to their houses to check on pets and clean up.

“Next time I‘m staying in Key Largo” one of them yelled.

Irma barreled into the Florida Keys on Sunday, bringing sustained winds of up to 130 mph (209 kph) and submerging the highway that connects the string of tropical islands with the rest of the state.

Ahead of the storm, one of the most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic, officials said they were pleasantly surprised that tens of thousands of residents accustomed to the area’s laidback lifestyle took evacuation orders to heart.

By Monday, the cooperative spirit started to unravel. At the checkpoint in Florida City, a Miami suburb, evacuees shouted at police and swore at media.

Some residents warned they would be less willing to leave next time if they were not allowed through soon.

“I’ve been in the Keys for 40 years,” Shelby Bentley told reporters at a non-operational gas station. “It’s the first time I’ve evacuated from a hurricane. It’ll be my last time.”

Local residents wait for the reopening of the entry road for the Florida Keys road after Hurricane Irma strikes Florida, in Homestead, Florida, U.S., September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The Florida Keys are a popular tourist destination, drawing millions of visitors each year for fishing, diving and boating. American author Ernest Hemingway called Key West home for more than a decade, and his former house remains an attraction.

But on Monday, most of the area had no fuel, no electricity, no running water and no cell service, local officials said.

Zabaleta said law enforcement in Monroe County, which includes the islands, was having trouble establishing reliable communications and could not say whether there had been injuries or deaths there due to the storm.

Florida Governor Rick Scott, who surveyed the damage by air, said just about every trailer park was overturned.

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“There’s devastation,” he said. “I just hope everybody survived. It’s horrible what we saw.”

Residents will not be allowed back into the Keys until authorities have inspected the bridges to make sure they are safe, said Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Joe Sanchez said. Trees, seaweed and watercraft were blocking roads, he added.

Some took the delay in stride. Drinking a can of beer as he lounged at the back of his pickup truck, Armando Boan, 55, said he might camp out in the Everglades for a few days.

“It’s all about your frame of mind,” he said. “This is out of my hands.”

Others, like photographer Marc Serota, 52, were irritated.

Serota said he had the required residential sticker that allowed him to return to island and that he and other evacuees were prepared to return with carloads of water, jugs of gas and chainsaws.

“That was epic that people actually did what they were told to do,” he said, referring to the evacuations. “They are going to have the worst time getting us out next time.”

Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Additional reporting by Letitia Stein and Jeff Mason; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; editing by Diane Craft

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