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Irma Damage Largely Cuts Off Florida Keys From The Outside World


The scope of Hurricane Irma's destruction in the Florida Keys is only just becoming clear. Over the weekend, Irma made landfall on the chain of islands as a Category 4 storm. An unknown number of people chose to hole up there during the hurricane, despite the mandatory evacuation orders. And they have since been more or less cut off, with power and cell phone towers down. We know there is some serious destruction in the Keys, and Florida officials are assessing the damage. Here's Rear Admiral Peter Brown from an airplane, observing some of the hurricane's tracks.

PETER BROWN: There's some significant house damage there. We saw some more trailer homes that were heavily damaged. We saw some fixed structures that were also damaged and a number of boats that were - have been tossed about, some still underwater and some thrown up on land.

MARTIN: The Defense Department has moved the USS Abraham Lincoln to the region to help with the evacuation of residents who are now stuck in the Keys with no power, with no water. That could be thousands of people. NPR's Kirk Siegler joins us now.

Kirk, what more can you tell us? How hard is it to get out to the Keys right now?

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Well, it's virtually impossible unless you've got access to a plane, at this point. There's a lot of devastation. We're starting to get a better sense of that. As you said, it's been cut off. There's been no cell service in a lot of places, no power. We know that there've been extensive amounts of homes destroyed, trees and power lines down, gas stations just mangled by the winds. And the storm surge sent boats thrown up onto roads.

And as you say, you know, that we're starting to get a sense that there's going to be a huge humanitarian mission there. There are estimates of up to about 10,000 people who didn't evacuate, and they're going to have to be evacuated off the island at some point. We are learning this morning...

MARTIN: Just to start to rebuild and clean up, you've got to get them on out.

SIEGLER: Exactly. We are - we do know that some people - mainly, people living in the Key Largo areas - are going - are getting access today, and they're going to get back home and start doing some assessments.

MARTIN: I mean, that's got to be incredibly frustrating. So some people are getting back in, but so many people are just waiting, and they can't go back home. They don't know what's going on.

SIEGLER: Right, and the scene down by the roadblock, where police are diverting people because they don't want the traffic stacking up as anxious evacuees are waiting out there, you know, it's pretty tense. A lot of people have been diverted over to this huge racetrack where there's an empty parking lot, but there aren't a lot of - there were actually no services when I visited there. And there are people like Mark Schweiss who are just camped out there with his RV, and there're boats out there as well, people waiting to get back in. And I talked to him, and you know, he was very frustrated. Let's hear a little bit of that now.

MARK SCHWEISS: The weather people said it was coming down my driveway for three days. You know, I'm not stupid. I'm - I left. But I thought I could get back. I'll never leave again.

SIEGLER: So Rachel, there's a lot of frustration there - you know, people waiting to get back in. He had driven up to Orlando and come back down here. And he knows that his house is OK. And he knows that the road getting to it is passable, so he's just waiting to get back in. But there's no food, no gas. Not much is open.

MARTIN: But officials, I imagine, don't want to hear what he just said, that if there is this thought that, oh, the government, the officials cried wolf, and the storm wasn't going to be so bad, and now I'm never going to go back. I mean, it - next time they call for an evacuation, that's dangerous.

SIEGLER: Exactly. And this is the tension you get in all sorts of natural disasters. But at this stage, you know, a lot of people have been gone for more than a week. There're a lot of testy nerves, a lot of sleepless nights, and people just anxious out here, waiting to get back in.

MARTIN: NPR's Kirk Siegler. Thanks so much, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.