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25% of homes destroyed

Search-and-rescue teams made their way into the Florida Keys' farthest reaches Tuesday, while authorities rushed to repair the lone highway connecting the islands and deliver aid to Hurricane Irma's victims. Federal officials estimated one-quarter of all homes in the Keys were destroyed.

Two days after Irma roared into the island chain with 130 mph winds, residents were allowed to return to the parts of the Keys closest to Florida's mainland. But the full extent of the death and destruction there remained a question mark because communications and access were cut off in places.

"It's going to be pretty hard for those coming home," said Petrona Hernandez, whose concrete home on Plantation Key with 35-foot walls was unscathed, unlike others a few blocks away. "It's going to be devastating to them."

Elsewhere in Florida, life inched closer to normal, with some flights again taking off, many curfews lifted and major theme parks reopening. Cruise ships that extended their voyages and rode out the storm at sea began returning to port with thousands of passengers.

The number of people without electricity in the late-summer heat dropped to around 10 million — half of Florida's population. Officials warned it could take 10 days or more for power to be fully restored. About 110,000 remained in shelters across Florida.

Seven deaths in Florida have been blamed on Irma, along with four in South Carolina and two in Georgia. At least 35 were killed in the Caribbean.

"We've got a lot of work to do, but everybody's going to come together," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said. "We're going to get this state rebuilt."

Irma's rainy remnants, meanwhile, pushed through Alabama and Mississippi after drenching Georgia. Flash-flood watches and warnings were issued around the Southeast.

While nearly all of Florida was engulfed by the 400-mile-wide storm, the Keys — home to about 70,000 people — appeared to be the hardest hit. Drinking water was cut off, all three of the islands' hospitals were closed, and the supply of gas was extremely limited.

Officials said it was not known how many people ignored evacuation orders to stay behind in the Keys.

Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said that preliminary estimates suggested that 25 per cent of the homes in the Keys were destroyed and 65 per cent sustained major damage.

"Basically every house in the Keys was impacted," he said.



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