Irma’s US death toll rises; people start to return to Florida coast

FLORIDA CITY/MARCO ISLAND: Florida allowed some residents to return on Tuesday to areas hammered by Hurricane Irma’s high winds and storm surge, while the death toll rose in the second major hurricane to hit the United States this year. Irma, which had rampaged through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, was downgraded to a tropical depression on Monday. It will likely dissipate later, the National Hurricane Centre said.
At its peak the storm prompted evacuation orders for 6.5 million people in Florida, the largest evacuation in modern US history. Irma killed nearly 40 people in the Caribbean and at least six in Florida and Georgia.
A local Florida official said there had been more deaths yet to be reported, particularly on the Florida Keys, where Irma arrived as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 215 km per hour on Sunday morning.
Local authorities told around 90,000 residents of Miami Beach and from some parts of the Keys they could go home but warned it might not be prudent to remain there.
“This is going to be a frustrating event. It’s going to take some time to let people back into their homes particularly in the Florida Keys,” Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told a news conference.
FEMA was continuing to rescue people stranded by flooding around Jacksonville, in the state’s northeast, he said.
Irma devastated several Caribbean islands en route to Florida. It destroyed about one-third of the buildings on the Dutch-ruled portion of St Martin island, the Dutch Red Cross said on Tuesday.
The storm was the second major hurricane to make landfall in the United States in a little more than two weeks when it roared over Key Cudjoe. Hurricane Harvey plowed into Houston late last month, killing about 60 and wreaking some $180 billion in damage, largely through flooding.
Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said on Monday that people had been killed in the Keys, which have nearly 80,000 permanent residents, but she did not have a count on how many.
Several major airports in Florida that halted passenger operations due to Irma began limited service on Tuesday, including Miami International, one of the busiest US airports.
Miami Beach will allow residents to return home from 8 am (1200 GMT), its mayor said. More evacuation orders were likely to be lifted on Tuesday.
Monroe County opened road access on Tuesday morning for residents and business owners from Key Largo, the main island at the upper end of the chain, as well as the towns of Tavernier and Islamorada farther to the south, fire officials said.
No timetable was given for reopening the remainder of the Keys, which are linked by a series of causeways and bridges down to Key West, a popular tourist spot on the southern tip of Florida.
Utilities reported some 6.9 million homes and businesses were without electricity in Florida and neighbouring states and said it could take weeks to fully restore service.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 utility workers from out of state, sent to inspect and repair power lines, were staying in Broward County in cramped conditions at BB&T Centre, home to the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers, said Gus Beyersdorf, 40, of De Pere, Wisconsin. Insured property losses in Florida from Irma were expected to run from $20 billion to $40 billion, catastrophe modelling firm AIR Worldwide estimated. — Reuters