Power outages, fuel availability big issues in Florida after Hurricane Irma

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MIAMI — As night fell Tuesday, many people from South Carolina to Florida were staying in darkened homes, dealing with fallen trees and blocked roadways, and hoping they could find gas.

The situation in the Sunshine State was trying the patience of people who rode out the storm and those who came home after evacuating Hurricane Irma’s path to find widespread devastation and access to their neighborhoods limited at times.

Power outages in Florida affected almost 5 million homes, organizations and businesses, among them gas stations, which need the electricity to keep pumps working.

Two days after Irma made landfall on Cudjoe Key, authorities and a few residents were finally able to reach some of the Florida Keys on Tuesday.

What they found was devastating: Based on initial estimates, 25 percent of the houses on the chain of islands have been destroyed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday. Another 65 percent suffered major damage.

“Basically, every house in the Keys was impacted some way,” Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said.

But Key West city manager Jim Scholl said FEMA’s estimates might be high. The damage in his city and in neighborhood on Cudjoe Key didn’t match those dire numbers, he said.

The biggest challenge in Key West is moving debris out of the roadways.

Scholl said he felt sympathy for the people who want to come home, but aren’t being allowed that far south because of issues with the water infrastructure. The area is under a boil water advisory.

“That’s why we don’t want people to, en masse, return down here to the Keys. And we certainly understand the frustration,” he said. “Everyone wants to get down here and check out their homes.”

It’s a long wait for those sifting through what’s left of their homes throughout Florida in the oppressive heat and high humidity — doing so while they wait for the power, and thus the air conditioning, to come back on.

All customers who lost electricity on the eastern side of the state likely will have power restored by the end of this weekend because fewer electrical poles came down in the storm, Florida Power and Light said Tuesday.

An FPL official said at a Broward County news conference that of the 790,000 customers in that county who lost power, 330,000 had their electricity restored Tuesday.

The company is focusing its efforts first on schools, hospitals and other critical infrastructure. Gas stations and restaurants are next on the plan, the official said.

Customers on the west coast of Florida, where Hurricane Irma made its final landfall, will likely have power restored by Sept. 22, the company has said.

But residents such as William Rose have bigger concerns. Rose still can’t reach his family on the Keys, where about a quarter of the islands’ houses are annihilated.

He’s not sure whether his mother, stepdad, grandmother and aunt survived Irma’s wrath.

“I have no idea, but I’m trying to stay positive,” Rose said.

Before the Keys lost cellphone service, Rose received a text from his mother, who chose not to evacuate.

“This is terrible. I will never do this again,” the text read. “I’m so glad you got out.”

The Florida Department of Transportation said it has determined the bridges between the islands are structurally sound.

Transportation officials said two sections of U.S. 1 that were washed away by Irma, one at mile marker 37 and the other at mile marker 75, have been repaired.

Darwin Tabacco, who stayed on Big Pine Key during Irma, is one of the fortunate residents. Both he and his house survived.

“A lot of people lost everything,” he said. “There’s homes blown off the stilts. There’s power lines down all over the place. Trees completely uprooted. People’s businesses flooded. Septic fields flooding. It’s just terrible.”