Eight people were killed and 40 were injured in the Florida Keys during Hurricane Irma, Monroe County officials said Wednesday.
The deaths were both hurricane-related and due to natural causes, according to a Monroe County news release. Two of the deaths took place in Key West.
Of the 40 injuries, 10 happened in Key West, officials said.
The news comes as many of the people who left the Keys before the storm were slowly making their way back home, with even more were returning on Wednesday.
At 7 a.m., people who live or own a business in the Upper Keys were allowed to drive as far as Mile Marker 74.
Before the sun was up, there was a long line of cars reaching into Florida City awaiting the lifting of the nightly 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew.
Some will be returning home to nothing. 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.
Publix stores in Key Largo, 101437 Overseas Highway, and Marathon, 5407 Overseas Highway, were open Wednesday, though they were short staffed and not fully stocked.
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 Tuesday and get their first look at the devastation two days after Irma roared in with 130 mph winds.
"Cars floating around outside, not knowing when it was gonna stop, seeing it come up the stairs, not knowing when it was gonna stop, so it was frightening there," said Wendy Diaz, who stayed in the Keys during Irma's strike.
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.
Mariners Hospital in Tavernier opened its emergency room and disaster medical assistance teams have arrived and will be setting up in Key West, the Florida Keys Community College and the City of Marathon Park, which will become operational on Wednesday.
Two distribution centers for food and water became operation in Key West on Tuesday. One is at the Sears Town Plaza in New Town and the other is in Bahama Village in Old Town. Two other distribution sites are in the works at Sugarloaf School and the National Key Deer Refuge office on the Overseas Highway in Big Pine Key, officials said. The Winn-Dixie and Publix grocery stores opened Tuesday in Key Largo with limited hours.
Fuel remained limited in the Keys but gas stations are beginning to open up to the public, especially in the Upper Keys. There is still a precautionary boil water notice in effect for all of the Keys.
"It's just heartbreaking to know that the work we put into it, the storm could come like that and just destroy everything for us," said Louis Indelli, whose Island Grill restaurant in Islamorada was destroyed.
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.
Officials said the major reason for not being able to reach people is the lack of communication capability in the Keys. Most of the Keys are without internet or cell service, but crews are working to get these services back on line.
Search and rescue teams have been going door to door in the hardest hit areas of the Keys, including Big Pine Key and Cudjoe Key, where Irma made landfall. Military personnel have helped law enforcement break through the debris and assist in the search.
Col. Lou Caputo with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office said they have made good progress reaching many homes and have found no casualties in the search. They will continue door to door searches of the areas they haven’t covered and are expecting to cover about 90 percent of the hardest hit areas by Wednesday.
Crews also worked to repair two washed-out, 300-foot sections of U.S. 1, the highway that runs through the Keys, and check the safety of the 42 bridges linking the islands. FDOT also repaired two stretches of U.S. 1 that washed away, at MM 75 and MM 37, and they are ready for travel.
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 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.
No assessments have been done to accurately determine the percentage of damage or dollar figures, officials said.
"Things look real damaged from the air, but when you clear the trees and all the debris, it’s not much damage to the houses," said Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers.
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.
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."
The dusk-to-dawn curfew in the Keys will remain in place until further notice. Key West International Airport and Florida Keys Marathon International are open for emergency response flights but remain closed until further notice for commercial flights and general aviation.
The number of deaths blamed on Irma in Florida climbed to 12, in addition to four in South Carolina and two in Georgia. At least 37 people were killed in the Caribbean. The Florida deaths include four people who died of carbon monoxide poisoning from electric generators in two separate incidents.
"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."