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Irma's aftermath: Death, destruction, 16 million people without power

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2017-09-12 John Bacon and Nicole Rodriguez
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RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. —  Virtually all the East Coast customers of the state's biggest provider of power should have power restored by Sunday, with western customers fully up and running a few days later, Florida Power & Light said Tuesday.

Company spokesman Rob Gould said a preliminary assessment of Hurricane Irma's devastation indicated damage to the electrical infrastructure was not as extensive as expected. That included the west coast, which took a direct hit from Irma.

"What we're seeing is encouraging, particularly on the west coast where our main transmission structures have not come down," said Gould, whose company provides service to about half the state's 10.5 million power accounts. He said there would be a few exceptions where damage was particularly severe.

Pedestrians walk by a flooded car on a street as Tropical Storm Irma hits Charleston, S.C., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. Photos: Hurricane Irma strikes the U.S. Earlier Tuesday, a federal Homeland Security official estimated that more than two-thirds of the state's 21 million residents were without power. Christopher Krebs, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said power restoration was a priority as the region begins the complex task of recovery.

"I do ask that everyone have patience, this is going to take some time," Krebs said.

Gov. Rick Scott said power had been restored to about 1 million homes and businesses by Tuesday morning. More than 30,000 out-of-state utility workers were aiding the effort to turn lights on across the state, he said.

Irma, which smashed into Florida on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane with 130-mph winds, weakened to a post-tropical cyclone Tuesday with sustained winds of about 25 mph. The center of the storm was 65 mph southwest of Atlanta at 5 am ET.

The storm brought havoc to Georgia and South Carolina as well. More than 500,000 people evacuated Georgia's coastal communities, some of which saw storm surge running through their streets. Dozens of roads were closed because of flooding in and around Charleston, S.C.

Six deaths in Florida have been blamed on Irma, along with three in Georgia and one in South Carolina. At least 35 people were killed in the Caribbean last week.

More: Irma weakens, chainsaws buzz in battered Florida

More: In Hurricane Irma's wake, 3 takeaways on the costs

Irma first made landfall on the Florida Keys, then again later Sunday on Marco Island on the state's Gulf Coast. The storm roared north, flooding streets, toppling trees and power lines and snapping construction cranes across most of the state.

The U.S. Agriculture Department said Tuesday that Irma victims who are recipients of food stamps can use them for hot foods, normally a violation of the program's rules. It also is directing Florida and Georgia to issue food stamps more quickly this month.

Scott said all the state's highway and turnpikes were open, and a massive effort was underway to get gas to service stations. Many roads were backed up as residents made the pilgrimage back to their homes.

Authorities on the Florida Keys on Tuesday began allowing residents and workers to return to the upper islands in the chain — Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada. But the damage to the islands, particularly the lower islands, was catastrophic.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long told CNN about 25% of homes on the Keys were destroyed, and another two-thirds were damaged. 

"Basically, every house on the Keys was impacted," Long said.

Still, some Keys evacuees regretted leaving, complaining about price gouging at hotels and stores in Homestead, the last city on the mainland.

“I’ve learned my lesson, learned it the hard way,” David Hutchison said. “I’ll never evacuate again."

In Central Florida, more than 82,000 people remained without drinkable water in part of Brevard County while workers scrambled Monday to fix breaches in the water system.

"It's starting to come back, but there's no guarantees," said Cocoa City Manager John Titkanich, having been up all night monitoring the storm at City Hall. He said it could be a few days before the water is safe to drink.

"Boil your water until the city says 'don't boil your water,'" he said.

North Florida was not exempt from Irma's wrath. Scott and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny viewed the flood-damaged city near the Georgia border from the air Tuesday.

"We were shocked yesterday when the flooding started happening here," Scott said. "Thank God everybody helped everybody."

Curry said 356 residents were rescued from the floodwaters by emergency response teams.

“It was a sight to be seen,” Curry said. "Now we just begin to rebuild."

In Georgia, the body of a 62-year-old man who climbed a ladder behind his Worth County home was found under debris on the roof. Another man, in his 50s, was killed just outside Atlanta when a tree fell on his house, and a woman died when a tree fell on a vehicle in a private driveway, according to the website of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.

To the east, heavy wind and rains inundated South Carolina’s coast Monday and heavily flooded Charleston.

Charles Saxon, 57, became South Carolina’s first recorded death when he was struck by a tree limb while clearing debris outside his home in Calhoun Falls amid wind gusts of about 40 mph, according to a statement from Abbeville County Coroner Ronnie Ashley.

Remnants of Irma were sweeping through several states, although exact impacts could vary widely, the National Weather Service said. The worst problems from heavy rain and high winds forecast were expected to be scattered.

Alabama and North Carolina declared a states of emergency ahead of the storm.

"Things are looking better for us, but we're not out of the woods yet and we don't want any surprises," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said at a briefing Monday. "People still need to pay careful attention to the forecast and be prepared."

More: Florida Keys evacuees frustrated in the trek to go home

Overall, Irma was an unpredictable, powerful storm that kept forecasters guessing, even after landfall. One of the nation's top meteorologists says the storm could have easily been a Category 5 with 15-foot storm surge and 150-mph winds.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Jose is now meandering around the western Atlantic Ocean roughly 300 miles northeast of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Any potential direct hit from Jose wouldn't be until next week, however. 

Rodriguez reported from Florida, Bacon from McLean, Va. Contributing: Trevor Hughes, Doyle Rice, Bart Jansen, USA TODAY; Jim Waymer, Florida Today; Mark Barrett, The (Asheville, N.C.) Citizen-Times, and The Associated Press. 

Related gallery: Hurricane Irma in images [Provided by MSN.ca]

Local residents look at a collapsed coastal house after Hurricane Irma passed the area in Vilano Beach, Fla., Sept. 12, 2017. Photos show Irma's power

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