Coastal Florida cleans up wreckage of powerful storm Matthew

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (Reuters) - Joan Galasso walked through the empty wreck of the waterfront seafood restaurant she and her husband started a quarter-century ago and was horrified.

A damaged sign is seen on St. Augustine Beach in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, Florida, U.S. October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Hurricane Matthew had ripped away the deck where tourists had gathered to eat, drink and watch the sun set. It had smashed through the windows and shoved one of the dining booths into the kitchen.

“It looks like a war zone,” Galasso, 63, said of her restaurant, Matanzas Innlet, located about 15 miles south of St. Augustine. “It’s a total loss.”

Galasso was one of millions of residents of the U.S. southeastern coast returning to homes and businesses hammered by the storm.

Matthew was a Category 5 hurricane, the most powerful classification of storm, at its peak but was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone on Sunday as it headed away from the North Carolina coast. It killed at least 11 people in the United States and close to 900 in Haiti.

Officials in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina had urged people along parts of a 600-mile stretch of coast to evacuate. Some 2 million people were without power and streets were darkened miles from the coast.

Long lines of cars snaked along the roads leading to Florida’s barrier islands, which bore the storm’s brunt, after police began to let residents back across.

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Barry Fauts, 72, came back to find his property in coastal St. Augustine shattered by the storm.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said as he looked at the jagged mess of shattered wood that had once been a 2,000-square-foot ocean-facing deck attached to his two rental units. Fauts, who is retired, bought the property five years ago to rent to vacationers.

“We had people in here when the hurricane came so we refunded their money and they left,” Fauts said. “I was looking at coming back with chainsaw and a dump trailer. But this is probably more than I can handle. I guess the next step is call my insurance agent.”

CoreLogic, a real estate data firm, estimated the storm may have caused up to $800 billion in damage to property along the U.S. coast.

Farther south police and National Guard troops still had the main road closed, saying the road was impassable.

On St. Augustine Beach, streets were clogged with tree limbs and power lines. Residents trickling back in assessed their homes and began to clear their property.

Elyse Deluca, a 30-year-old nurse, said she had evacuated to Tennessee, unable to find a closer hotel room.

“We really wanted to get back. We were worried about this house, what we would see,” she said after seeing her home for the first time in three days. Tree branches littered her property but the home itself was undamaged.

“We had water about halfway across the lawn but none got into the house,” she said.

Editing by Frank McGurty and Bill Trott