NAPLES - Nearly 7.2 million homes and businesses are without power in multiple states as Tropical Storm Irma moves through the Southeast.
The vast majority were in Florida. The state’s emergency management officials said the storm cut power to more than 6.5 million account holders across the state as of Monday afternoon.
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. 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.
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The storm is plowing into Georgia and others parts of the Deep South -- Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas -- bringing the danger of life-threatening storm surge and hazardous winds.
"We're asking folks to be patient and remain sheltered in place," said St. Augustine Fire Chief Carlos Aviles.
"Stay off the roads, stay off the streets, let us complete our assessment, clear the roads of water, power lines, trees and then you can get out there and determine what happened to your individual property or your neighborhood," said Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler.
Irma is moving across the northern half of Florida's peninsula.
The hurricane hit southwest Florida on Sunday, battering the state's lower half and leaving a trail of tornadoes and storm-surge flooding as its core slowly moved inland.
The massive storm triggered evacuation orders for 5.6 million people before it made two landfalls in the state Sunday.
The first one was over the Florida Keys, which Irma hit as a Category 4 hurricane. The second one, in Marco Island, was a Category 3 that left the island without water and power, authorities said.
"It's the worst storm I've ever seen," said Bill South, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration tropical weather program meteorologist.
Battered Florida tries to assess scope of Irma's destruction
Aid rushed in to hurricane-scarred Florida early Tuesday, residents began to dig out, and officials slowly pieced together the scope of Irma's vicious path of destruction across the peninsula.
Even as glimmers of hope emerged from parts of the state forecasters once worried would be razed by the storm, the fate of the Florida Keys, where Irma rumbled through with Category 4 muscle, remained largely a question mark. Communication and access were cut and authorities dangled only vague assessments of ruinous impact.
"It's devastating," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said after emerging from a Monday fly-over of the Keys.
A Navy aircraft carrier was due to anchor off Key West to help in search-and-rescue efforts. Drinking water supplies in the Keys were cut off, fuel was running low and all three hospitals in the island chain were shuttered. The governor described overturned mobile homes, washed-ashore boats and rampant flood damage.
Key West resident Laura Keeney was waiting in a Miami hotel until it was safe to return to the island chain and anxious to hear more about her apartment complex. Her building manager told her there was flooding at her unit, but further updates were hard to come by because power and cell phone service has been down on the island.
"They told me there is definitely water in the downstairs apartment, which is me," said Keeney, who works as a concierge at the Hyatt in Key West.
A stunning 13 million people, two-thirds of the third-largest state's residents, plodded on in the tropical heat without electricity, and nearly every corner of Florida felt Irma's power. In a parting blow to the state before pushing on to Georgia and beyond, the storm caused record flooding in and around Jacksonville, causing untold damage and prompting dozens of rescues. It also spread misery into Georgia and South Carolina as it moved inland with winds at 50 mph, causing flooding and power outages.
Six deaths in Florida have been blamed on Irma, along with three in Georgia and one in South Carolina. At least 35 people were killed in the Caribbean.
More than 180,000 people huddled in shelters in the Sunshine State and officials warned it could take weeks for electricity to be restored to everyone.
The governor said it was way too early to put a dollar estimate on the damage.
During its march up Florida's west coast, Irma swamped homes, uprooted trees, flooded streets, snapped miles of power lines and toppled construction cranes.
Around the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, where Irma rolled through early Monday, damage appeared modest. And the governor said damage on the southwest coast, including in Naples and Fort Myers, was not as bad as feared. In the Keys, though, he said "there is devastation."
"It's horrible, what we saw," Scott said. "I know for our entire state, especially the Keys, it's going to be a long road."
He said the Navy dispatched the USS Iwo Jima, USS New York and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to help with relief efforts.
Emergency managers in the islands declared Monday "the Keys are not open for business" and warned that there was no fuel, electricity, running water or cell service and that supplies were low and anxiety high.
"HELP IS ON THE WAY," they promised on Facebook.
The Keys are linked by 42 bridges that have to be checked for safety before motorists can be allowed in, officials said. The governor said the route also needs to be cleared of debris and sand, but should be usable fairly quickly.
In the Jacksonville area, close to the Georgia line, storm surge brought some of the worst flooding ever seen there, with at least 46 people pulled from swamped homes.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office warned residents along the St. Johns River to "Get out NOW."
"If you need to get out, put a white flag in front of your house. A t-shirt, anything white," the office said on its Facebook page. "Search and rescue teams are ready to deploy."
Paul Johnson and Shonda Brecheen spent Sunday night in a house they're remodeling in the San Marco neighborhood of Jacksonville after working late on a remodeling project. Jonhson woke up Monday morning, looked out the window and saw boats passing by where cars used to drive in the neighborhood near the river.
"I'm 32, I've lived here most of my life, and I've never seen anything like that," he said.
A tornado spun off by Irma was reported on the Georgia coast, and firefighters inland had to rescue several people after trees fell on their homes.
A tropical storm warning was issued for the first time ever in Atlanta, and school was canceled in communities around the state. More than 1.5 million customers were without power Monday night in Georgia.
Irma, weakened to a tropical depression, is expected to push into Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee over the next two days.
Access restored to displaced residents of Upper Florida Keys
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.
It has been difficult to get detailed information on the condition of 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.
After flying over the Keys Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott described overturned mobile homes, washed-ashore boats and rampant flood damage.
"It's devastating," he said.
A Navy aircraft carrier was due to anchor off Key West to help in search-and-rescue efforts. Drinking water supplies in the Keys were cut off, fuel was running low and all three hospitals in the island chain were shuttered.
Elsewhere, areas such as Tampa Bay had braced for the worst but emerged with what appeared to be only modest damage. Early Tuesday, the remnants of Irma were blowing through Alabama and Mississippi after drenching Georgia.
Key West resident Laura Keeney waited 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 there was flooding there, but further updates were hard to come by because power and cell phone service have been down on the island.
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.
Power outages dropping in Georgia after Irma
UPDATE: The number of power outages continues to drop in Georgia after the remnants of Hurricane Irma stormed through the state, claiming at least two lives.
Less than 600,000 Georgia Power and Electric Member Corp. customers are still without power early Wednesday. The utility companies said they are continuing to assess damage as power is restored.
The utility companies say repairs and replacement of downed powerlines could take several days.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal lifted an evacuation order Tuesday for nearly 540,000 coastal residents. He cautioned that recovery could take longer because the storm affected the entire state.
A man was killed when a tree toppled on his house in Sandy Springs, Georgia. The 67-year-old Nancy Eason died after a tree fell on a vehicle in which she was riding in Forsyth County.
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