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Associated Press

Florida inches back toward normalcy as teams scour southernmost islands and authorities warn of mass devastation

Parts of Florida inched back toward normalcy on Wednesday with workers restoring power, clearing roads and replenishing gas supplies, even as scenes of destruction emerged from southernmost islands and new dangers emerged for residents without electricity.

Residents drifted back from shelters and out-of-state hotels to see Hurricane Irma’s scattershot destruction. Positive signs included some curfews being lifted, flights resuming and grocery stores reopening. But flooded streets remained, and the count of damaged and totaled homes ticked upward.

“Everything’s gone,” said Jen Gilreath, a 33-year-old bartender whose Jacksonville home filled with knee-high floodwaters.

While people around the state waited for power to be restored, a new hazard developed: carbon monoxide poisoning from generators. Authorities said that five people died and more than a dozen were treated for breathing fumes from the temporary power sources in separate instances in the Orlando, Miami and Daytona Beach areas.

One Miami-area apartment building was evacuated after authorities determined a lack of power made it unsafe for elderly tenants, while officers arrived at another retirement community to help people stranded on upper floors without access to working elevators. Elsewhere, a South Florida townhouse that weathered the storm was gutted by fire when power was restored, causing the stove to ignite items left on the cooktop.

As crews labored to repair the lone highway connecting the Keys, residents of some of the islands closest to Florida’s mainland returned to get their first look at the devastation two days after Irma roared in with 130 mph (209 kph) winds.

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

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

The number of deaths blamed on Irma in Florida climbed to 13 with the carbon monoxide deaths, in addition to four in South Carolina and two in Georgia. At least 37 people were killed in the Caribbean.

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

Glimpses of Irma’s economic toll were emerging, with Florida saying 31 state agencies had already amassed nearly $250 million in preparation and recovery expenses. In the meantime, officials warily eyed storm damage to its citrus crops, an issue Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio planned to address at a joint news conference Wednesday morning with growers.

The number of people without electricity in the steamy late-summer heat dropped to 9.5 million — just under half of Florida’s population. Utility officials warned it could take 10 days or more for power to be fully restored. About 110,000 people remained in shelters across the state.

In hard-hit Naples, on Florida’s southwest coast, more than 300 people stood outside a Publix grocery store Tuesday, waiting for it to open.

At the front of the line after a more than two-hour wait, Phill Chirchirillo, 57, said days without electricity and other basics were beginning to wear on people.

“At first it’s like, ‘We’re safe, thank God.’ Now they’re testy,” he said. “The order of the day is to keep people calm.”

While nearly all of Florida was engulfed by the 400-mile-wide (645-kilometer) storm, the Keys — home to about 70,000 people — appeared to be the hardest hit. Drinking water and power were cut off, all three of the islands’ hospitals were closed, and the supply of gasoline was extremely limited.

Search-and-rescue teams made their way into the more distant reaches of the Keys, and an aircraft carrier was positioned off Key West to help. Officials said it was not known how many people ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind in the Keys.

Crews also worked to repair two washed-out, 300-foot (90-meter) sections of U.S. 1, the highway that runs through the Keys, and check the safety of the 42 bridges linking the islands.

In Islamorada, a trailer park was devastated, the homes ripped apart as if by a giant claw. A sewage-like stench hung over the place.

Debris was scattered everywhere, including refrigerators, washers and dryers, a 25-foot (8-meter) fishing boat and a Jacuzzi. Homes were torn open to give a glimpse of their contents, including a bedroom with a small Christmas tree decorated with starfish.

One man and his family came to check on a weekend home and found it destroyed. The sight was too much to bear. The man told his family to get back in the car, and they drove off toward Miami.

The Lower Keys — including the chain’s most distant and most populous island, Key West, with 27,000 people — were still off-limits, with a roadblock in place where the highway was washed out.

Although the Keys are studded with mansions and beachfront resorts, about 13 percent of the people live in poverty and could face big obstacles as the cleanup begins.

“People who bag your groceries when you’re on vacation — the bus drivers, hotel cleaners, cooks and dishwashers — they’re already living beyond paycheck to paycheck,” said Stephanie Kaple, who runs an organization that helps the homeless in the Keys.

On the mainland, one of the evacuees taken from the Coral Gables apartment building that lacked power was a 97-year-old woman who is immobile and has heart problems.

Five firefighters went up the dark emergency stairwell, strapped Cuban-born Ofelia Carrillo to a special evacuation chair and carried her down. Her daughter Madeleine Alvarez said they ultimately heeded firefighters’ isntructions, despite doctors warning of her mother’s fragile state.

“This is the most stressful situation I’ve lived in my life,” Alvarez said.

Irma effect on tourism mixed

Florida could recover from Hurricane Irma’s wrath in time for its busy tourism season this winter, but that’s likely not the case for harder-hit Caribbean islands including St. Martin/St. Maarten, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and Barbuda, according to travel experts’ early reads.

Damage assessments still were underway yesterday, but impacts on Florida’s $100 billion tourism industry likely will be short term and not affect winter’s high-travel season that starts in mid-December.

“It does look, so far, that Florida will probably recover a bit quicker than some of the worst-hit Caribbean islands, and that’s because, from what we can tell, there’s less damage, and generally the infrastructure and government support is a little bit better,” said Sarah Schlichter, senior editor of SmarterTravel.com.

Florida attracted nearly 113 million tourists last year, supporting more than 1.4 million jobs. Some closed airports and cruise ports were expected to resume operations last night and today. Delta Air Lines and American Airlines planned to restart some service last night, with flights to harder-hit areas like Key West not expected until later.

“Obviously Key West is going to suffer, because they got hit with a Category 5 (hurricane),” said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.

Planned travel in the near future to the Florida Keys island chain should be postponed, the Florida Keys Tourism Council tweeted yesterday.

Walt Disney Co. said it would reopen its Florida theme parks today, and Universal Orlando planned to resume operations today as well.

The storm damage likely won’t have an effect on Florida airfares, according to Hobica. “Airfares already are pretty rock-bottom to Florida this time of year, simply because it’s a slow period,” he said. “Some people don’t go to these regions simply because they know it’s hurricane time.”

Some Caribbean islands, meanwhile, could lose significant tourist dollars if cruise lines have to avoid them and hotels and resorts don’t reopen for some time. Several stops at cruise ports of call sustained extensive damage, including St. Thomas, St. John, St. Maarten and Cuba. At least 15 ports were damaged, with eight almost destroyed, according to the website Cruisecritic.com. Norwegian won’t be sending ships to the eastern Caribbean until November at the earliest and will reroute cruises to western stops.

“I don’t think too many people are going to be flying to those islands this winter,” Hobica said.

The Caribbean’s busy tourist time falls during the winter holidays through spring break. The “ABC islands” — Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire — stand to benefit in the immediate term, because they’re outside the hurricane belt and considered safer bets.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Irma made for bizarre storm surge

Hurricane Irma’s devastating storm surge came with weird twists that scientists attribute to the storm’s girth, path and some geographic quirks.

A combination of storm surge, heavy rains and swollen rivers sent some of the worst flooding into Jacksonville, Florida, even though Irma roared into the opposite end of the state, had weakened to a tropical storm and its eye stayed at least 80 miles (130 kilometers) away.

Although preliminary data suggest Irma’s eye pushed a surge of more than 10 feet (3 meters) onto southwest Florida’s Marco Island, the highest water levels were reported hundreds of miles away in Jacksonville and Savannah, Georgia, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And southwestern Florida, which is prone to surges, saw the opposite at first: a strange-looking negative surge that sucked the water off the sea floor quickly enough to maroon several manatees. After the water pulled away from the beaches and bay, it came back with vengeance, but much of Florida’s west coast wasn’t swamped as badly as it could have been because Irma’s track kept them safe from the storm’s stronger eastern side.

“You can call it bizarre; I might call it unusual or unique,” said Rick Luettich, director of the Institute of Marine Studies at the University of North Carolina. “What was very unusual about it was, it spanned two coastlines that were in different-facing directions. As a result, you got the opposite behavior on both coastlines.”

Tampa “dodged a bullet” on the weaker side of the storm, especially because Irma’s southwestern eyewall had been broken up by high winds near Cuba, MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel said.

Jacksonville and the rest of the east coast, on the other hand, got the northeast brunt of the storm, where winds, surge and rainfall are at the strongest. And because hurricane winds spin counterclockwise and lined up perfectly perpendicular to Jacksonville’s St. John’s River, “it just pushed the water from the Atlantic right into the river,” National Hurricane Center spokesman and meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said.

The city’s concave coastline and the shallow water off the beach also made for a bigger storm surge buildup, funneling more water into Jacksonville, said storm surge expert Hal Needham of Galveston, Texas.

On top of that, Jacksonville – unlike western Florida – only got one side of Irma, so the wind kept coming from the same direction, pushing the surge even higher, Needham said.

That’s why Paul Johnson was surprised when Monday morning he woke up in Jacksonville, looked out the window and saw boats passing by where cars normally drive. The water was licking at his front door. Before long, the flooding rose nearly to the window of his beloved pickup truck.

“I’ve lived here most of my life, and I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said.

It was worse than last year’s Category 5 Matthew, which sat just off shore, because Irma grew to an immense 415 miles (670 kilometers) wide, Luettich said.

“The size of the storm made a huge difference,” Luettich said.

People tend to focus on top sustained winds, but that’s only part of the equation that goes into storm surges. The storm’s size is another major factor, as with Katrina, said Jamie Rhome, who heads the storm surge unit at the National Hurricane Center.

“As bad as it felt on the east coast of Florida, things were significantly worse in the Florida Keys,” Rhome said, as well as in the lower part of southwest Florida where the storm’s eye passed close by, such as Immokalee.

Negative storm surge happened where Irma’s eye moved over water east of the coastline and winds pushed the water away from the shore. That draining of the bay and coast “tricks people,” Rhome said, but Needham said the Tampa region has experienced this type of negative storm surge at least twice before.

And because the reverse surge means the coastline must be refilled before water inundates land, the resulting speed and effect of the surge is lessened, Luettich said.

Johnson said he had joked with his Facebook friends when Irma’s track appeared to turn away from Jacksonville that the storm was too afraid to come near. But this storm’s punch came from so far away that it never had to.

“She got us back,” Johnson said. “She showed us, she sure did.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press 

Irma delivers punch to agriculture

Florida fruit growers and farmers have just barely begun to assess the damage Hurricane Irma wrought on the state’s citrus, sugar cane and vegetable crops—but they expect it will be significant.

With power and communications still out across much of Florida, officials said Tuesday that getting a full picture will take weeks. What remains unknown: Exactly how much damage the crops suffered, how much producers might recover from crop insurance, and how much more people might pay for their morning orange juice.

“Irma went right up the middle. It didn’t matter where you were, because Irma was so wide,” said Mark Hudson, the Florida state statistician with the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Extension and Farm Service Agency agents have just started evaluating the losses, he said, “if they can get fuel and if they can get out.”

Florida’s orange harvest usually begins around Thanksgiving, and about 90 percent of it becomes juice. Projections for the 2016-2017 growing season had called for 68.5 million boxes of oranges and 7.8 million boxes of grapefruit. The orange crop was worth over $886 million, according to USDA figures, while the grapefruit crop was worth nearly $110 million.

“Before Hurricane Irma, there was a good chance we would have more than 75 million boxes of oranges on the trees this season, we now have much less,” said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. Initial reports indicate Irma’s winds knocked lot of fruit to the ground but uprooted relatively few trees, which will help growers in the long term.

Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said reports indicate a 50 percent to 70 percent crop loss in South Florida, depending on the region, with losses “only slightly less going north.”

Joel Widenor, co-founder of Commodity Weather Group, forecast the overall orange crop loss at 10 percent and the grapefruit loss at 20 percent to 30 percent. He estimated sugar cane losses at 10 percent.

The sugar cane harvest was expected to begin Oct. 1. Producers had anticipated a “very good” crop of around 2.1 million tons, said Ryan Weston, CEO of the Florida Sugar Cane League. Aerial observations this week should start showing how much was knocked down, he said.

Florida is a key source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the rest of the country in the winter. In many cases those crops aren’t in the ground yet, or it’s early enough to replant. But particularly for tomatoes and strawberries, Lochridge said, some fields about to be planted were damaged. So she said the tomato crop is expected to be light in early November, though officials expect a solid December. Strawberry growers expect to recover quickly and harvest on time, she said.

“A big concern for growers is finding available workers to help them in their recovery efforts,” Lochridge said. “The labor supply was already very tight.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue its first forecast of Florida’s 2017-18 citrus crop on Oct. 12. The state’s industry has been decimated in past years by citrus greening disease, which cuts yields and turns fruit bitter. The harvest has fallen by more than 70 percent since the disease was discovered in Florida in 2005, Lochridge said, and the resulting higher prices for consumers haven’t made up for the losses to growers.

Frozen orange juice concentrate futures, which provide a glimpse at what might happen to consumer prices, spiked last week as Irma bore down but slipped this week. Coca-Cola, whose brands include Minute Maid and Simply juices, said its juice operations are already back up and running.

Chet Townsend, editor of the Citrus Daily newsletter who also owns a five-acre grove near Fort Denaud in southwestern Florida, got his first good look at the damage driving around his area Tuesday morning.

“I’ve never seen so much fruit down, even after a freeze,” he said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press

Airports open but cancellations linger

Most commercial airports in Florida reopened Tuesday, but activity was limited and hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed as the state recovered from Hurricane Irma.

American Airlines said the storm forced it to cancel more than 5,000 flights over several days, cutting into revenue and profit.

Miami International Airport said that some airline and cargo flights had resumed, with the first departure being an American Airlines flight to Las Vegas around 7 a.m.

The Federal Aviation Administration said airports in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville were open. The airport in Key West was closed except for emergency flights and was not expected to reopen until Friday.

Tracking service FlightAware.com said more than 2,100 U.S. flights scheduled on Tuesday were canceled by mid-afternoon, including more than 500 in Miami and more than 400 in Orlando. Airlines told passengers to make sure their flights were on time before going to the airport.

FlightAware said several of the largest Florida airports were running at around half their normal capacity.

American Airlines Group Inc., which has a major hub in Miami, said all the storm-related cancellations caused it to cut a forecast for third-quarter revenue per mile by about 1 percentage point. American didn’t give a dollar figure, but a drop of 1.5 points in the same figure at United Airlines after Hurricane Harvey equaled about $150 million in lost revenue.

American said the combination of lost revenue from Irma and higher fuel prices from Harvey, which shut down many Texas refineries, would cause its third-quarter pretax profit margin to fall from around 11 percent to around 9.5 percent.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press

FEMA estimates 25 percent of Florida Keys homes are gone

With 25 percent of the homes in the Florida Keys feared destroyed, emergency workers Tuesday rushed to find Hurricane Irma’s victims – dead or alive – and deliver food and water to the stricken island chain.

As crews labored to repair the lone highway connecting the Keys, residents of some of the islands closest to Florida’s mainland were allowed to return and get their first look at the devastation.

“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.”

But because of disrupted phone service and other damage, the full extent of the destruction was still a question mark, more than two days after Irma roared into the Keys with 130 mph (209 kph) winds.

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 steamy late-summer heat dropped to around 10 million – half of Florida’s population. Utility officials warned it could take 10 days or more for power to be fully restored. About 110,000 people remained in shelters across Florida.

The number of deaths blamed on Irma in Florida climbed to 13, in addition to four in South Carolina and two in Georgia. At least 37 people were killed in the Caribbean.

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

In hard-hit Naples, on Florida’s southwest coast, more than 300 people stood outside a Publix grocery store in the morning, waiting for it to open.

A manager came to the store’s sliding door with occasional progress reports. Once he said workers were throwing out produce that had gone bad, another time that they were trying to get the cash registers working.

One man complained loudly that the line had too many gaps. Others shook their heads in frustration at word of another delay.

At the front of the line after a more than two-hour wait, Phill Chirchirillo, 57, said days without electricity and other basics were beginning to wear on people.

“At first it’s like, ‘We’re safe, thank God.’ Now they’re testy,” he said. “The order of the day is to keep people calm.”

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 and power were cut off, all three of the islands’ hospitals were closed, and the supply of gasoline was extremely limited.

Search-and-rescue teams made their way into the more distant reaches of the Keys, and an aircraft carrier was positioned off Key West to help. Officials said it was not known how many people ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind in the Keys.

Monroe County began setting up shelters and food-and-water distribution points for Irma’s victims in the Keys.

Crews also worked to repair two washed-out, 300-foot (90-meter) sections of U.S. 1, the highway that runs through the Keys, and check the safety of the 42 bridges linking the islands.

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

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

In Islamorada, a trailer park was devastated, the homes ripped apart as if by a giant claw. A sewage-like stench hung over the place.

Debris was scattered everywhere, including refrigerators, washers and dryers, a 25-foot (8-meter) fishing boat and a Jacuzzi. Homes were torn open to give a glimpse of their contents, including a bedroom with a small Christmas tree decorated with starfish.

One man and his family came to check on a weekend home and found it destroyed. The sight was too much to bear. The man told his family to get back in the car, and they drove off toward Miami.

In Key Largo, Lisa Storey and her husband said they had yet to be contacted by the power company or by city, county or state officials. As she spoke to a reporter, a helicopter passed overhead.

“That’s a beautiful sound, a rescue sound,” she said.

Authorities stopped people and checked for documentation such as proof of residency or business ownership before allowing them back into the Upper Keys, including Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada.

The Lower Keys – including the chain’s most distant and most populous island, Key West, with 27,000 people – were still off-limits, with a roadblock in place where the highway was washed out.

In Lower Matecumbe Key, just south of Islamorada, 57-year-old Donald Garner checked on his houseboat, which had only minor damage. Nearby, three other houseboats were partially sunk. Garner had tied his to mangroves.

“That’s the only way to make it,” said Garner, who works for a shrimp company.

While the Keys are studded with mansions and beachfront resorts, about 13 percent of the people live in poverty and could face big obstacles as the cleanup begins.

“People who bag your groceries when you’re on vacation, the bus drivers, hotel cleaners, cooks and dishwashers, they’re already living beyond paycheck to paycheck,” said Stephanie Kaple, who runs an organization that helps the homeless in the Keys.

Corey Smith, a UPS driver who rode out the hurricane in Key Largo, said it was a relief that many buildings on the island escaped major damage. But he said conditions were still not good, with branches blocking roads and supermarkets closed.

“They’re shoving people back to a place with no resources,” he said by telephone. “It’s just going to get crazy pretty quick.”

Mendoza reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Terry Spencer in Palm Beach County; Gary Fineout and Joe Reedy in Tallahassee; Jay Reeves in Immokalee; Terrance Harris in Orlando; Claire Galofaro in Jacksonville; and Freida Frisaro, Jennifer Kay, Curt Anderson and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.

Kennedy Space Center remains closed, but spared major damage

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center remained closed Tuesday but appeared to have weathered Hurricane Irma well.

The same holds true at adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Power was restored to NASA and Air Force facilities but water service was still out Tuesday. Until that’s restored, officials said Kennedy would stay closed to non-essential personnel. Inspection crews were out in full force.

At Kennedy’s tourist area, life-size replicas of the space shuttle fuel tank and booster rockets were still standing outside the home of shuttle Atlantis. No major damage was reported at the visitor complex, which remains closed through Wednesday, and Atlantis and all other space artifacts were safe and in good shape, said spokeswoman Rebecca Shireman.

“We dodged another bullet,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, who’s in charge of Air Force operations.

Last October, Hurricane Matthew stayed safely off shore. On Monday, Hurricane Irma’s path remained well to the west of Cape Canaveral, which got hit with high winds and heavy rain.

About 9,000 people work at Kennedy, most of them contractors.

Several private companies, including Boeing and SpaceX, have operations at Kennedy and reported minimal damage. In addition, the Air Force’s secretive X-37B space planes – one rocketed into orbit just last week – use a couple of former shuttle hangars. At the Air Force station, rocket maker United Launch Alliance reported only minor damage to its buildings

After Irma, reverse migration back to Florida begins

With Irma having weakened into inland rainstorms, Floridians are beginning a mass migration back to a battered, water-logged state where millions remains without power.

But traffic maps, social media reports, gasoline trackers and the ever-reliable eye test all say it isn’t an easy trip Tuesday and won’t be in the days ahead.

“As soon as we hit the state line, it was traffic jams and accidents,” said Elizabeth Priore of Fort Lauderdale, as she continued her return drive from Alpharetta, Georgia, late Tuesday afternoon.

Priore said she had managed to find gas and open restaurants along the way, and she said Interstate 95 south of Jacksonville was “moving well.”

But traffic cameras elsewhere in the state, particularly along Interstate 75 in the Orlando metro area, showed gridlock.

“We were expecting a nightmare,” Priore said, explaining that she decided it was better to brave it than to wait.

Other Floridians are opting to wait it out, fearing the congestion, lane closures, fender benders, shuttered restaurants and gas stations without fuel.

“We’re not leaving until Thursday because of the gas situation,” said Nick Westbrook, a Coral Gables resident who has settled in Knoxville, Tennessee with his wife and children.

“We have friends on the road, and they’re letting us know it’s just what I feared it would be.”

Adam Bolanos, a high school teacher from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says he’s talking to neighbors and friends on the road, particularly about fuel access. “The shortage is very real,” he said.

Bolanos and his family — a three-car caravan with multiple generations and pets — also is waiting in Tennessee.

Gov. Rick Scott and other authorities are urging evacuees not to be in a rush to return, particularly those who live in the hardest-hit areas, from Key West and the southwest coastline near Naples to the flooded neighborhoods of Jacksonville in state’s northeast corner.

As power crews dispersed Tuesday, an estimated 15 million Floridians — about 5.6 million residential and commercial customers — were without electricity. Bridges were being inspected around the state, power outages left traffic signals inoperable on key surface roads, and some roadways remained closed due to standing water, downed power lines or debris.

Still, interstates across the southeast filled with traffic, with metro areas in multiple states reporting backups and slower-than-usual traffic.

The gasoline monitoring app GasBuddy reported Tuesday morning that Florida stations were beginning to replenish their supplies, which were depleted from a mass exodus after Scott asked more than 6.5 million residents to evacuate.

The shortages, though, remained high in several Panhandle and northern Florida locales: 62 percent of stations in Gainesville had no gas; 47 percent in Jacksonville; 51 percent in Tallahassee. Those are key junctures for travelers looking to return to the southern peninsula.

Christopher Krebs, head of infrastructure protection for the federal Homeland Security Department, told reporters Tuesday in Washington that Harvey, which made landfall in Texas and Louisiana in late August, took a “significant amount” of the nation’s refining capacity offline and affected distribution. “As a result,” he said, “there may be some fuel supply shortages throughout the Southeast.”

In Georgia, transportation officials hoped to ease the traffic burden. They announced plans to suspend construction-related lane closures on interstates and state routes throughout the entire state until Wednesday.

But Irma didn’t allow that everywhere. South Carolina road officials said they had to close a lane of southbound Interstate 95 because the storm’s winds apparently damaged a culvert that required repair. The resulting backups had already started Tuesday morning.

Some Floridians say they have no choice but to begin their trip home now.

Pam Szymanksi of Fort Myers, Florida, had to leave her Atlanta hotel Tuesday. “They’re booked,” she said, adding that she planned to stop in Valdosta, Georgia, for at least one night with her mother, two children and two dogs.

“I don’t want to run into closed roads,” she said of the final 350 miles between Valdosta and her home, “but I want to get home and start cleaning up.”

Stephanie Clegg Troxell remained 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.

She said she’s watching another storm, Jose, before deciding when to leave. Jose is still offshore well east of the U.S. mainland.

“I’m trying to sneak out when it’s not 30 miles (48 kilometers) per hour-plus winds,” she said.

Meanwhile, she’s got another worry: a homesick pig. Tank, the 70-pound pet, usually lounges beside the pool in Florida. In Tennessee, Troxell said, “He’s missing his tropical scenery.”

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 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 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 day-long and overnight drives they endured just days ago.

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 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.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press

Miami Beach residents allowed to return home

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.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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