Hurricane survivors try to move forward despite looters in Keys

KEY WEST, FLA. (WSVN) - Hurricane survivors in the Florida Keys are keeping an eye out for looters who have already taken advantage of them as they deal with the aftermath of the storm.

There have been improvements every day in the Lower Florida Keys, thanks to the enormous aid efforts, but some residents said there are looters in the area causing yet another problem for the hard-hit area.

7News’ drone flew over Big Pine Key, Friday, showing houses that have either been gutted or have roofs missing.

Down below, Miami firefighters are digging through the rubble and looking for survivors. A 7News crew stumbled upon an urban search-and-rescue task force.

“We’re trying to identify if there are any people that are trapped, that we can make sure we evacuate them and get them the proper EMS care that they need,” said Chief Scott Dean.

For every street they search and clear, they tie a red rope around a pole. So far, they’ve found people in need of food, water and medicine.

Resident Mike Johnson said the storm surge did most of the damage to his property. He took 7News crews inside his house to show how he was impacted.

“Here, six feet of water,” Johnson said. “My truck out there was under water before the hot tub busted the windshield out of it.”

Although many homes were severely impacted by Hurricane Irma, it is getting better. Some of the roads that were deserted Thursday are seeing more traffic on Friday.

Fire crews were driving in the area as cleanup efforts were taking place. “Cell service has come back. You can buy groceries and get ice,” said one resident.

Elliot Davies is thankful for all the help they’ve received. “The military is here. They got here quick,” he said. “The choppers were flying. They’re landing on every runway that’s possible.”

Because most residents are not yet allowed back into the Lower Keys. Davies has taken it upon himself to check on his friend’s house, especially with the reports of looters.

“We’re securing a friend’s house,” he said. “Somebody’s broken the back door open, and we’re just boarding it back up.”

Neighbors said they have heard of looters coming in by boat, but one resident said he’s ready. “They will get shot,” said resident Ryan Mahan. “Yeah, definitely. I don’t want to shoot anybody, but I gotta protect our neighbor’s stuff. I mean, what little we have left.”

Those in the Keys have managed to keep their positive attitude to carry on and move forward.

“Sweep it up, clean it up and start over,” Davies said. “That’s all you can do.”

Another resident echoed Davies’ sentiment. “A positive attitude will get you anywhere,” he said. “A negative attitude will bring you down.”

As Keys residents who weathered the storm at home try to tidy up, Florida Gov. Rick Scott spent part of his day, Friday, surveying the damage in the Keys.

This process will take months or even years to fully accomplish, since residents’ homes are either destroyed or missing.

“It’s remarkable what you all went through and, you know, Florida is known for the Keys,” Scott said. “I think, worldwide, people know the beauty of the Keys.”

Friday morning, Scott met with local and federal officials in Key West, Friday morning.

Temporary housing and power are the two main priorities for the state. Housing, in particular, is a task that, officials said, will be difficult and complicated.

“I know that, in this state and in FEMA, it’s an issue we’re focused on,” said Scott.

For those who stayed behind, they’re getting some relief from local supermarkets that have reopened for business.

“I don’t have electric,” said Gina Ramirez. “I had to clean out my freezer, refrigerator, so there’s nothing in there. It’s all spoiled.”

Small businesses have also joined the effort. “We saved some stuff, put it on ice, so we can still serve it,” said Peter Vranovsky with Big John’s Pizzeria.

When asked how much longer she thought she could continue to go without power, survivor Julie Carmona replied, “I don’t know. I’m about to lose my mind, ’cause I can’t sleep. It’s so hot!”

The infrastructure in Key West fared mostly well during the storm. When it comes to Irma’s impact in the city, residents pointed to a grotto that, they believe, is a source of divine protection from national disasters. http://wsvn.com/news/local/key-west-grotto-attracts-residents-seeking-divine-intervention-after-irma/

“It was established by a nun a number of years ago, and people so light candles,” said resident George Caffery. “Somebody in my family went.”

The grotto is located at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea.

“Sister Louise Gabriel was a sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary who served in our school for over 100 years,” said Father John Baker, the pastor at the congregation.

He said Sister Gabriel built the grotto after the islands suffered from three major storms. Gabriel had hoped it would protect the Florida Keys from future devastation.

Even if the grotto doesn’t always work, it gives this island community a sense of security when it seems like nothing else will work. “Because we believe it. Prayer helps,” said Carmona.

AT&T has also responded to the Keys to deliver free phones with a month’s worth of free service. “It’s not about the device; it’s about connecting with your loved ones,” said Christy Swink with AT&T. “They wanna hear you’re OK.”

For some islanders, this will be the first time they’re speaking with friends and family. “They’ve just given me a free phone,” said one recipient. “Everything they’re doing makes us feel good.”

“They haven’t heard from me since last Saturday,” said another.

Getting back to normal is a long way away, but a lot of people 7News spoke with said they feel like they’re getting their lives back under control.

There is a Monroe County Sheriff’s Office checkpoint near Mile Marker 75. Officials said they will announce new re-entry procedures.

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