US south-east states brace for long recovery after Irma, millions still without power

The aftermath of Hurricane Irma over the Florida Keys on Sept 11, 2017.
The aftermath of Hurricane Irma over the Florida Keys on Sept 11, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

JACKSONVILLE, Florida (NYTIMES) - Stressed and exhausted families across the southeast were assessing the damage from Hurricane Irma, even as flooding from the storm continued to plague some areas like Jacksonville, and the worst of its wallop was being revealed in others like the Florida Keys.

Officials in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina tried to prepare residents for the hardships of recovery from the storm. More than 4.7 million Florida homes and businesses remained without power on Tuesday (Sept 12), according to state officials, and there were widespread electricity problems in other states as well.

At least 56 people have died as a result of the storm, including at least 13 in Florida, according to The Associated Press.

Weakened now to a post-tropical cyclone, Irma moved towards the Ohio Valley and spread its clouds and rain over a vast area, while blue skies and sticky heat returned to Florida. The White House announced that President Donald Trump, who twice visited Texas after Hurricane Harvey, would visit Florida on Thursday.

Nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in areas without power struggled to keep residents cool and vital medical equipment operating with backup generators.

Governor Rick Scott of Florida said on Tuesday that the state had shifted its attention to recovery and rebuilding efforts, while working to get water and food to those who needed it and to restore access to fuel. He said that there were 30,000 people working to get the lights back on in the state and that inspectors were checking the safety of bridges and sizing up repairs needed for sewage systems.

"We've got a lot of work to do, but everybody's going to come together," Scott said. "We're going to get this state rebuilt."

The extent of the flooding in Jacksonville, driven by the hurricane's storm surge, heavy rains and high tides, "shocked" residents and officials alike, the governor said, adding: "So many areas that you would never have thought have flooded, have flooded."

Jacksonville, with 1.5 million people in its metropolitan area, is bisected by the St Johns River and is heavily built up along its banks.

Captain Raymond Lutzen, 48, a Jacksonville firefighter on the region's Urban Search and Rescue Team, said that when the river swells and the city's storm drains clog, "it's like a bathtub with a plug in".

As the river overflowed on Monday, 18 patients had to be evacuated from St Vincent's Medical Center. Mayor Lenny Curry said that, in all, 356 people had to be rescued.

Across the state, about 94,000 people remained in shelters on Tuesday, according to state officials.

While the hurricane largely spared Gulf Coast cities like Tampa that seemed for a while to be facing catastrophic flooding, places like Jacksonville that were farther from its direct path were left stunned, sodden and still assessing the damage.

"We were prepared, like everyone else, but there is still a sense of awe," state Representative Tracie Davis, a Democrat, said in the city's San Marco neighbourhood. The floodwaters had begun to recede, but the street in front of Davis had become a pond, with a garbage can bobbing on the surface and a red sedan inundated up to its wheeltops.

In the Riverside neighbourhood, residents piled debris at the curb, and clumps of tree moss and silt traced the high-water mark, blocks away from the river, which was still lapping over the concrete bulkheads meant to contain it. Metal fencing lay twisted on the ground.

While it was too soon to say conclusively how much damage Irma had done, Davis said, it seemed clear that thousands of houses had been flooded.

"We're talking about people having to rebuild throughout the city," she said.

South-east of Jacksonville in St Johns County, along the A1A highway that parallels the shore, erosion from the storm surge had undermined some oceanfront houses in Ponte Vedra Beach so badly that they had nearly tipped into the ocean, and many flooded roads were still impassible on Tuesday.

In South Florida, the Miami region lurched toward recovery. A countywide curfew was lifted, crews were beginning to pick up trash, commercial flights resumed at Miami International Airport, and cruise ships began pulling into Miami. Public transit was expected to resume in stages through the rest of the week.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said that tap water was safe to drink and that half of the county's traffic lights had been restored to service. Gimenez urged restaurants and business to reopen if possible, in order to speed the region's recovery.

But on a day of temperatures in the mid-80s and no air conditioning for many residents, the mayor warned against the temptation of a dip in the ocean, saying it would take several more days to assess whether local waters were safe for swimming.

Curtis Canidate stood outside his home in West Perrine, near Miami, and watched Tuesday morning as 10 Florida Power and Light workers repaired a downed line that could restore electricity to about 1,000 people. As they worked, a woman in a passing car shouted her address, imploring them to go there next.

Canidate, 53, said the biggest lesson from the storm was how dependent Floridians are on a vulnerable power system. "Everyone should invest in generators," he said, wagging a finger. "Don't take it for granted."

In the hard-hit Florida Keys, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, said that about one-quarter of the houses were destroyed by the storm and that another 65 per cent suffered major damage.

But officials of Monroe County, which includes the Keys, held back from offering such a specific assessment. "It is too early to put percentages or dollar figures to damage until we get into the neighborhoods," a county commissioner, Heather Carruthers, said in a statement.

"Things look real damaged from the air. But when you clear the trees and all the debris, it's not much damage to the houses."

Officials reopened part of the sole highway linking the islands, U.S. 1, but were not yet allowing traffic to the more distant islands in the chain. Driving south and west from Key Largo, the visible damage from the storm grew progressively more severe. The roadside was littered with boats, appliances, dock sections and other debris. Emergency workers marked the doors of empty houses with the date and time they were checked for casualties.

At mile marker 74 on Lower Matecumbe Key, where the open section ended, military Humvees could be seen moving further south to join the federal, state and local authorities trying to assess the damage and provide relief.