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When will Florida evacuees be allowed to return home after Hurricane Irma?

Irma weakened to a tropical storm Monday morning

Water flows out of the Miami River to flood a walkway as Hurricane Irma passes through on Sunday in Miami, Florida.
Water flows out of the Miami River to flood a walkway as Hurricane Irma passes through on Sunday in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

MIAMI – Residents were returning Tuesday to some islands in the hurricane-hit Florida Keys as officials pieced together the scope of Irma's destruction and rushed aid into the drenched and debris-strewn state.

It has been difficult to get detailed information on the condition of the island chain where Irma first came ashore over the weekend because communication and access were cut off by the storm's arrival as a Category 4 hurricane. But displaced residents and business owners from Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada near the mainland were allowed to return for their first glimpse of the damage Tuesday morning.

People from the Lower Keys faced a longer wait with a roadblock in place where the highway to farther-away islands was washed out by the storm. Road repairs were promised in the coming days.

Corey Smith, who rode out the hurricane in Key Largo, said Tuesday that the power is out on the island, there's very limited gas and supermarkets are closed. Piles of brush and branches are blocking some roads. The UPS driver said he fears an influx of returnees could overwhelm what limited resources there are.

"They're shoving people back to a place with no resources," he said by phone. "It's just going to get crazy pretty quick."

When will Florida get gas after shortage following Hurricane Irma?

Still, he said people coming back to Key Largo should be relieved that many buildings avoided major damage.

Authorities were stopping people to check documentation such as proof of residency or business ownership before they're allowed back into the Upper Keys. County officials announced that one of three shuttered hospitals on the island chain was reopening.

After flying over the Keys Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott described overturned mobile homes, washed-ashore boats and flood damage. A Navy aircraft carrier was due to anchor off Key West to help in search-and-rescue efforts.

Elsewhere, areas such as Tampa Bay had braced for the worst but emerged with what appeared to be only modest damage.

On Tuesday morning, the remnants of Irma were blowing through Alabama and Mississippi after drenching Georgia. Flash flood watches and warnings were scattered around the Southeast.

Key West resident Laura Keeney was waiting in a Miami hotel until it was safe to return home, and she was anxious to hear more about her apartment complex. Her building manager told her about flooding there, but further updates were hard to come by because of limited phone service.

"They told me there is definitely water in the downstairs apartment, which is me," said Keeney, who works as a concierge at a Hyatt hotel.

Lower Keys resident Leyla Nedin said Tuesday she doesn't plan to return anytime soon to her home near where Irma first made landfall on Cudjoe Key.

"There are still 9 bridges that need final inspections. Plus we are still without water, power, sewer, gas and cell service," she said. "My concern is that even if we get to go in to the Lower Keys, our fragile infrastructure could be even more compromised."

When will Florida airports reopen after Hurricane Irma?

LIVE STREAM: Tropical Storm Irma continuous coverage from Miami

In one of the largest U.S. evacuations, nearly 7 million people in the Southeast were warned to seek shelter, including 6.4 million in Florida alone. More than 200,000 people waited in shelters across Florida.

So, when will Irma evacuees be allowed to return home?

Well, you can drill down by county using the Florida Disaster site here.

As it stands right now, damage is still being assessed and authorities have not offered a timetable for a safe return to homes in evacuation areas. 

From FLA Emergency: Although the storm has passed some areas, everyone should continue to listen to local officials and stay off the roads unless necessary to keep areas cleared for search and rescue missions.

*UPDATE: Hendry and Glades County mandatory evacuation lifted*

Residents were allowed to return Tuesday to some islands in the hurricane-hit Florida Keys as officials pieced together the scope of Irma's destruction and aid rushed into the drenched and debris-strewn state.

Officials in Miami Beach allowed residents to return to their homes Tuesday morning after Hurricane Irma pounded Florida with wind and rain.

A long line of cars amassed on Interstate 195 at 6:55 a.m. Tuesday, waiting for the road blocks to be taken down.

The entryways have been blocked since Sunday night so crews could remove numerous downed branches from main arteries and clear debris.

To re-enter the beach, residents must show a state ID or other proof of residency.

Downed trees, damaged roofs seen on Marco Island

A longtime resident of Florida's Marco Island said Hurricane Irma was the strongest storm he's seen in three decades of living there.

Rick Freedman and his wife rode the storm out the island where Hurricane Irma made its second landfall Sunday afternoon as a Category 3 storm. They were uninjured, but he said the damage around them was striking.

A couple doors down from his house, much of a neighbor's roof blew off. He said the island was covered with debris Monday morning.

He and his wife spent Sunday in a neighbor's house with sturdy concrete block construction, and that house suffered little damage. He said his own wood-frame house on stilts appears to have little if any interior damage, but the storm ripped off an exterior stairway to the front door and blew off some roof shingles.

At the storm's height he described "tremendously, tremendously powerful winds."

Flight cancellations mount as Irma pushes north from Florida

Big airports in Florida remain closed, and flight cancellations are spreading north along the track of Tropical Storm Irma.

American Airlines said it won't resume flights in Miami until at least Tuesday, revising its plans to restart late Monday.

An airline spokesman says the timetable depends on approval by federal aviation officials and the ability of security screeners and airport vendors to return to work.

More than 3,800 U.S. flights scheduled for Monday were canceled by late morning -- and more than 9,000 since Saturday -- according to tracking service FlightAware.

Disruptions have spread beyond Florida. Delta Air Lines is canceling 900 flights Monday, including many at its Atlanta hub because of high winds. American is canceling 300 flights in Charlotte, North Carolina, due to wind.

Irma knocks out power to 5.5M homes, businesses

More than 5.5 million homes and businesses are without power in multiple states as Tropical Storm Irma moves through the Southeast.

The vast majority were in Florida. Eric Silagy, the CEO of Florida Power & Light, said Irma caused the most widespread damage in the company's history. It affected all 35 counties in the utility's territory which is most of the state's Atlantic coast and the Gulf coast south of Tampa.

He said about 4 million homes and businesses were without power at noon Monday, affecting about 9 million people. The most extensive damage was likely in the Naples area, but a full assessment was ongoing. He said 19,500 electric workers have been deployed in the restoration effort.

Still, he said, it will take days for many people to be restored and, in some cases where the damage was extensive, weeks.

Meanwhile, Duke Energy reported Monday morning that more than 860,000 of the homes and businesses it serves in Florida were without power.

Georgia reported more than 570,000 homes and businesses without electricity, and there were 80,000 in South Carolina.

Aircraft carrier to assist Irma Florida recovery

The Navy is sending an aircraft carrier to Key West to provide emergency services.

An update from Monroe County describes "an astounding recovery effort" taking place in the Florida Keys.

The USS Lincoln aircraft carrier will be anchored off Key West to provide emergency services, and three other Navy vessels are en route.

Officials said the National Guard has arrived in the island chain, and state transportation officials have cleared six of 42 bridges as safe for travel. However, roads remain closed because of debris, and fuel is still a concern. There is no water, power or cell service in the Keys.

Disney World plans to reopen Tuesday after cleaning from Irma

Survivors, relatives, volunteers connect online for Irma aid

Social media has been a game-changer for Americans coping with natural disasters. Worried relatives, generous volunteers, frantic neighbors, even medical providers are going online to establish contact and send help.

Communicating is difficult because Hurricane Irma wiped out electricity and cell service to communities across Florida. Of particular concern is the Florida Keys, where remote islands have been cut off.

But Facebook's Safety Check feature is letting people tell friends and family they're OK. And many people are using Zello, a walkie-talkie application, to get word out about their conditions through other people who are able to spread word online.

Governor says lots of damage in Keys

Florida Gov. Rick Scott says he flew over the Keys and saw a lot of flood damage and boats that had washed ashore.

He says there is "devastation" and he hopes everyone who stayed behind survived Irma. He said almost every mobile home park in the Keys had overturned homes.

Scott also flew over the west coast of Florida on Monday and said the damage was not as bad as he thought it would be.

EPA grants pollution waiver to Florida utilities after Irma

State and federal environmental regulators issued a blanket waiver on Monday for Florida electricity companies to violate clean air and water standards without penalty for the next two weeks.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the so-called No Action Assurance granted through Sept. 26 came at the request of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The letter said the move will provide Florida utility generators needed flexibility to maintain and restore electricity supplies in the wake of Hurricane Irma. The EPA said the move was in the public's interest.

Florida's Division of Emergency Management said about noon on Monday that 6.52 million utility customers in the state were without power. That's more than 65 percent of all electricity customers.

The EPA's assurance letter will allow utilities to operate outside restrictions mandated by their permits, including potentially using dirtier fuels, running for longer hours or electively bypassing pollution control equipment. Coal-fired plants can also discharge wastewater laced with levels of toxic-heavy metals at higher concentrations than what would normally be permitted.

The utilities are still required to monitor and report the levels of regulated contaminates in their air emissions and water discharges, according to the letter.

The Associated Press reported last week that air pollution levels spiked in the Houston area after a similar enforcement waiver was granted to Texas petrochemical facilities ahead of Hurricane Harvey's arrival.

Below you'll find the latest info from Florida emergency officials:

 

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After Irma, Florida's evacuees contemplate return trip

 

Thanks to reconnaissance by a neighbor who stayed behind, Pam Szymanksi knows Hurricane Irma blew out the living room window of her southwest Florida home, but she isn't sure when she'll get to see the damage for herself.

"All I know is we have to check out of here tomorrow, because they're booked," she said Monday, sitting in the lobby of a downtown Atlanta hotel where she arrived with her mother, two children and two dogs. A hotel reservation in Valdosta, Georgia, is next, Szymanksi said, but that's still 350 miles (563 kilometers) from their home in Fort Myers.

"I don't want to run into closed roads," she said, "but I want to get home and start cleaning up."

Szymanski's family helped make up one of the largest storm evacuation efforts in U.S. history, after Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged more than 6.5 million residents, one out of four of his constituents, to leave.

Now, with Irma advancing inland, a potential reverse migration from across the Southeast raises new worries of jammed roadways amid uncertain gasoline supplies, empty grocery store shelves, standing water and widespread power outages that in heavily damaged areas could last for weeks.

Scott cautioned evacuees not to rush back home.

"Storm impacts can continue well after the center passes," the governor said from his official Twitter account, asking residents to follow local officials' advice on when to return. He later retweeted FEMA's warning that Irma involves "disruptions to daily activities" long after it passes.

That's not necessarily a message Floridians want to hear, even as they contemplate reliving the daylong and overnight drives they endured just days ago.

Carin and David Atkins of Pinecrest, Florida, were waiting out Irma on Monday, planning to leave their Atlanta hotel Tuesday morning to head back down the Florida peninsula with their children, Molly and Thomas. The Atkinses said they have hotel reservations near Cape Canaveral, more than halfway back to their home outside Miami.

"I've called to confirm they have power," David Atkins said, adding that some businesses near their home have power as well.

Carin Atkins said they can live without power at home for several days, recalling that they went 47 days without power after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. They evacuated, she said, only because of the threat of rising water from a storm surge that didn't reach to their home.

Other evacuees still aren't as sure of their return.

Stephanie Clegg Troxell was near Nashville, Tennessee, where her family caravan includes three cars and a trailer, five adults, five children, 13 dogs, three mini-horses and a pet pig. The trek from New Port Richey, Florida, north of Tampa Bay, took more than 17 hours, beginning last Wednesday.

Troxell said her husband stayed behind and now is working with friends to remove a tree that fell on the roof of their house. They also had no power.

"We don't know when we're leaving and now there's another hurricane coming," Troxell said, referring to Jose, which was offshore. "I'm trying to sneak out when it's not 30 miles (48 kilometers) per hour-plus winds."

In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Rea Argonza was worried about money as she mapped out her return plans.

"Staying here, it's been like a financial strain," said Argonza, who traveled with her husband and five children from St. Augustine, Florida, to two hotel rooms 500 miles  (805 kilometers) away near the Wake Forest University campus. "We're up to almost a thousand dollars now. I do believe this whole expedition is going to be almost $3,000."

In some cramped quarters, there were parties.

Argonza celebrated her 32nd birthday in North Carolina. Troxell's daughter celebrated her 13th birthday Monday in Tennessee on a trip that's featured visits to the state fair, some nearby waterfalls and the Opryland complex.

But the joys of an unplanned excursion may not extend to 70-pound (32-kilogram) swine. Tank, the Troxell family pig, appeared homesick because he can't lounge by the pool like he does at home. "He's missing his tropical scenery," Troxell said.