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Florida Keys evacuees frustrated in the trek to go home

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Tempers flared and nerves frayed Monday as evacuated Keys residents grew frustrated because they couldn’t quickly return home, even as military and civilian authorities warned of the apocalyptic conditions they might find.

Some relief may be in sight: Residents and business owners of the upper Keys will be permitted to return starting at 7 a.m. Tuesday, county officials announced Monday night.

That’s welcome news for residents here. Even Homestead, the last town on the mainland, groaned under the weight of thousands of evacuees anxious to return to the string of islands tailing off Florida’s southern tip.

Some evacuees swore they’d never leave again, and others said they’re being price-gouged by hotels, convenience stores and gas stations taking advantage of their increasingly desperate situation.

“I’ve learned my lesson, learned it the hard way,” said David Hutchison, who evacuated after Gov. Rick Scott begged Keys residents to leave their homes as Irma approached. “I’ll never evacuate again.”

Authorities plan to allow residents to return in stages as they clear a path. In Homestead, the hospital’s emergency room was crammed with patients and the handful of restaurants open had long lines.

Gov. Rick Scott overflew ravaged areas of South Florida Monday, urging Floridians to be patient about returning to their homes and warning of the continued danger of flooding and electrified power lines in the trail of Hurricane Irma. “It’s horrible, what we saw,” Scott said at a news conference “I know for our entire state, but especially the Keys, it’s going to be a long road.”

A Florida Highway Patrol trooper stands in the middle of U.S. Highway 1 in Homestead, Fla., on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, keeping the road to the Florida Keys closed while workers clear debris left behind by Hurricane Irma.

The U.S. Navy anchored the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier offshore of Key West, and was sending the USS Iwo Jima and USS New York to assist. The Defense Department was also sending about 100 high-clearance trucks and 400 soldiers, 76 fuel trucks, and 12 million meals.

State and local transportation workers were inspecting and clearing dozens of bridges and causeways, along with the pavement of U.S. Highway 1 itself. County officials say there’s no drinking water, electricity or cell service on most of the Keys, and fuel was being reserved for emergency workers and recovery crews.

“For many people, supplies are running low and anxiety is running high,” county officials acknowledged in a statement. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Keys residents refused to leave the area despite Irma’s threat.

The hurricane blasted ashore in the center of the Keys, and media reports indicate many homes, businesses and boats were flooded or destroyed. All three of the Keys’ hospitals are closed, including their emergency rooms, as are schools and most businesses.

The National Guard on Monday entered the Keys with equipment and personnel to help with recovery efforts, and a C-130 cargo plane loaded with water and food was scheduled to land at Naval Air Station Key West in Boca Chica, county officials said.

Knowing there’s a recovery effort ongoing, however, is of little consolation to residents desperate to know about their homes, cars, boats and businesses.

Some residents said television reporters who ignored the evacuation order have been their best source of information.

Still, that’s not enough, said Thomas Williams, who lives with his family on a 60-foot sailboat off Key West. They evacuated at the governor’s request and lost contact with their daughter, whose boyfriend’s boat sank during the storm.

They made it to shore, Williams said, but he hasn’t heard from them since. Compounding his woes, the hotel in which he and his family were staying the past two nights refused to renew their reservation Monday, turning them out on the street with a 6-month-old baby, and then a convenience store charged them $30 for drinking water that ordinarily costs $2.50, he said.

“Everything I have is in this,” Williams said, gesturing at his battered SUV. “The sailboat is really all we have. I don’t even know if it’s there.”

Key West is a popular tourist destination, drawing revelers to the legendary Duval Street bars where pianos duel and the frozen drinks flow.

Although Americans make up the bulk of estimated 2.25 million annual visitors, Key West is also popular with Canadians, Germans and the British, especially during Northern Hemisphere winters: Local officials like to boast there’s never been frost, ice, sleet, or snow there.

Key West is home to about 25,000 people, along with a significant population of nomadic or homeless people who bathe in the ocean and hang out in back alleys. Of that permanent population, about 5,000 are members of the military, including the Coast Guard, along with their families and support staff.

Half of the Keys economy depends directly on tourism — a $2.7 billion industry — according to county officials.

Hutchison and his wife live only a few miles from Homestead, at the very top end of the Keys, and he said his neighbors have confirmed the roads are all clear back to his house.

Hutchison said they evacuated to Fort Myers, which was then slammed by Irma, and drove back to Homestead. Monday afternoon, he grew increasingly impatient as he argued with sheriff’s deputies managing a staging point where residents waited to return home. Monroe County issued color-coded stickers to residents to help speed an evacuation return.

Several dozen people waited anxiously at the staging point, a large parking lot at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Worried about burning gas they might need to get home, most huddles in scraps of shade behind their vehicles and conserved drinking water.

Worried about a health crisis, Hutchison badgered fellow Keys resident Deputy Orey Swilley to call a supervisor, to bring in portable toilets and water, and provide specific updates on when they could all return home. When Swilley told Hutchison he was free to leave anytime, Hutchison said he didn’t have enough gas.

“Sir, you’re not in any danger,” Swilley said. “I can’t help that you didn’t prepare to evacuate. I prepared to evacuate. My house is probably gone but here I am.

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