PHOTOS have emerged of the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Florida, which left millions in the dark and unable to return home for weeks.
Florida Governor Rick Scott on Monday warned the path to recovery from Irma would be long and hard, particularly for the worst-hit Keys island chain that bore the brunt of the storm’s destructive force.
“There’s devastation,” Scott told a press conference following an aerial tour of the archipelago, which was the first part of the United States to be struck by Irma while it was still a Category Four hurricane.
“I just hope everybody survived,” he said. “It’s horrible what we saw. Especially for the Keys, it’s going to be a long road.
“We saw a lot of boats washed ashore and we saw any, basically, any trailer park there overturned,” Scott continued, adding that water, sewage and electricity had all been knocked out.
Five deaths in Florida have been blamed on Irma, along with two in Georgia and one in South Carolina. At least 34 people were killed in the Caribbean as the storm closed in on the U.S. mainland.
Officials in the Florida Keys have warned tourists and residents to stay away until further notice, noting: “The Keys are not open for business.”
Houses and mobile homes have been uprooted and other infrastructure destroyed, while dozens of boats were crushed and overturned in the devastating winds.
A US journalist surveying the damage tweeted: “It’s hard to describe the lower (Florida) Keys right now. Best word I could say is war zone.”
Footage from the Grassy Key island shot by US broadcaster NBC showed downed power lines, felled trees, and streets strewn with debris and vehicles. But homes that were made from concrete appeared to have withstood the gusts.
Irma made its first landfall in Florida on Sunday morning in the Keys as a Category 4 storm, with 209km/h winds. It has now been downgraded to a tropical storm, but is still considered dangerous.
In a White House press briefing on Monday afternoon, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said recovery in the Florida Keys is “going to take a while. … I would expect that the Keys are not fit for re-entry for regular citizenry for weeks.”
Meanwhile, millions of Floridians could be waiting weeks for the lights to come back on.
Irma’s impact on Florida’s power supply may be bigger than we thought, with the state’s largest utility saying today the majority of the population is without power.
“More than half of the population of Florida is out of power would be my guess,” said Eric Silagy, president and chief executive of Florida Power and Light.
While 6.5 million account holders have no power, the fact people had more than one account pushed the number far higher.
Mr Silagy urged patience and asked people not to call for help getting their power back on.
“Until we have a better assessment where the damage is, we won’t be able to tell,” he said.
Convoys of utility trucks were pictured making their way down 1-95 through Orlando towards the Florida Keys and Miami, as blacked-out business owners asked why they had to wait for help.
“They have told us that we have to wait until the first people to be impacted get their lines fixed, so we don’t know how long we have to wait,” said petrol station worker Desi as he surveyed the damage at his Melbourne business.
Orlando Utilities Commission spokesman Roseann Harrington said: “We ask for everybody’s patience. This will probably be the largest utility restoration and rebuild project in the history of the United States.”
And temperatures are set to soar: sweltering air and humidity are expected to broil Miami with a heat index as high as 42C over the next four days, according to AccuWeather.
The city of Jacksonville in northeast Florida ordered urgent evacuations on Monday as record floods from monster storm Irma were set to rise even higher with the oncoming high tide.
“If you are in Evacuation Zone A or B along the river you need to heed this warning and get out now,” the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said on its Facebook page, referring to neighbourhoods along the St Johns River which bisects the city.
“Historic flood levels already. Levels will continue to rise. Expect 4-6 feet (1.2-1.8 metres) above normal high tide levels. Very significant river flooding is coming. It is going to be bad at high tide around 2.00pm.”
Residents who needed help getting out were urged to put a white flag, T-shirt, or other white object in front of their home to grab the attention of search and rescue teams.
“In the event of rising water, go up, not out,” the sheriff’s department added.
Video posted on Twitter on Monday morning showed murky floodwater flowing quickly along a street in downtown.
Jacksonville, population 880,000 was not in the direct path of Irma, which was downgraded to a tropical storm earlier on Monday and travelling north roughly in line with the state’s western coast.
But that placed Jacksonville in the northeast portion of the massive storm, putting it at the greatest risk of powerful winds and rain, with Irma’s tropical storm-force winds extending out 665 kilometres from the eye.
Irma weakened from a hurricane into a still-dangerous tropical storm on Monday as it pushed inland.
The storm engulfed nearly the entire Florida peninsula, wreaking havoc from the state’s southernmost point up to the Georgia line, from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf side. It swamped homes, uprooted massive trees, flooded streets, cast boats ashore, snapped kilometres of power lines and toppled construction cranes.
More than 6.2 million homes and businesses remained without power, and 220,000 people huddled in shelters. Officials warned it could take weeks for electricity to be restored to everyone.
No deaths in Florida were immediately linked to the storm. But at least 34 people were killed in the Caribbean as Irma ravaged a string of resort islands long known as vacation playgrounds for the rich.
Frozen star Kristen Bell has sung to the victims of Hurricane Irma in Florida.
The Veronica Mars star, filming her new movie in the US city, was also left stranded by the storms.
Instead of retreating to her hotel, the 37-year-old went to a school being used as a shelter and cheered up hurricane victims.
A video of her singing “For The First Time In Forever” from Frozen was posted on the school’s Facebook page.