Frustrated residents begin to trickle into Upper Keys amid rescue efforts

FLORIDA CITY, FLA. (WSVN) - - At 7 a.m., Tuesday, Upper Keys residents were given the green light to go back home.

Not only were residents allowed into Key Largo, Islamorada and Tavernier, but business owners were also allowed in to see their property in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Monroe County officials said entry requires a yellow re-entry sticker or proof of residency or business ownership in either of the three cities.

7News cameras captured the devastation in Cudjoe Key, where the strongest part of Irma’s eyewall struck. Downed telephone poles and homes with missing roofs lined block after block. Boats were thrown around like toys.

“For two days it was hell. You didn’t know whether you were going to make it or not,” said Shawne Street, who rode out the storm with a friend in her bathroom.

Residents have little food and water left, no electricity and no cellphone or landline service. They are unable to drive their cars because the vehicles filled up to 6 to 7 feet or seawater.

After Irma moved north, the entire area was left partially underwater because of storm surge. “The water was chest-high, waist-high or a little higher,” said resident Kris Mills.

Mills said he is now stranded. The sign in his front yard reads, “Disabled veteran needs help.”

His neighbor’s sign reads, “SOS. We here need water.”

The Upper Keys also sustained significant damage. Water covered U.S. 1 and washed away the only way in and out. 7News cameras captured boats on the side of the road.

The damage was even more severe in Big Pine Key, where strong winds ripped apart a mobile home.

Residents who hunkered down in Key West said without power or internet, they also feel cut off. “We need people to know we’re alive, and we’re OK, and we’re making it through this,” said Jennifer Hensley.

The world-famous Duval Street remained completely shut down Tuesday afternoon.

Monroe County officials stopped re-entry into the Upper Keys a half hour before dusk, on Tuesday due to a curfew. Re-entry will resume at 7 a.m. Wednesday. The entire county is running on a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Monroe County Sheriff’s Office has also brought in extra law enforcement to help with security.

Officials said there are no services being provided in the Keys. Residents returning to the area need to bring their own food and water.

Residents and business owners are currently allowed to go as far as Mile Marker 73.

One priority in the county is to reopen the three hospitals in the Keys: Mariners Hospital in Tavernier, Fishermen’s Hospital in Marathon and the Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West. Officials said Mariners Hospital opened Monday night and found water damage. They are working quickly to be able to receive patients.

Shelters are currently in the process of being opened.

The seemingly endless line of cars with Keys residents trying to get back into the area ran along U.S. 1, which was shut down post-Irma. Only emergency crews were allowed into the Keys.

Members of the armed forces are also undertaking relief efforts to help Keys residents. The U.S. Air National Guard and U.S. Navy helicopters landed at Opa-locka earlier on Tuesday. They joined Chinook helicopters already on the tarmac.

National Guard convoys joined search and rescue crews from around the U.S. were allowed into the Keys, strictly to reach the more damaged areas in the Lower Keys.

C-130 military cargo planes also landed in Fort Lauderdale.

The cavalry is also coming by land. Even with the Overseas Highway torn up, these vehicle will be able to get through.

7News rode with South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force 2. They left for the Keys on Monday afternoon.

Firefighters and emergency medical technicians from 27 agencies comprised the convoy aiming to save as many lives as possible. “We’re going to conduct a search of the hardest hit areas,” said City of Miami Fire Rescue Chief Joe Zahralban.

Zahralban’s group of more than 40 was one of the first urban search and rescue teams to enter the Keys since Irma tore through the region.

The team has plenty of tools at their disposal, from dogs, to drones, to special trucks that are able to go over high water. They also used special boats like the one rescue crews used in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

7News cameras captured the team walking the pitch-black streets in Big Pine Key.

Most searches turned up nothing, but rescuers came upon a man. “We did leave during the actual storm. We went to one of the shelters,” said the survivor. “They call them shelters of last resort.”

Others, like Tim Marquis, stayed behind. He used one of the rescuers’ satellite phones to call his wife.

Marquis said he rode out the storm at a bed and breakfast in Big Pine Key. “It was a pretty high storm. Lots of water and lots of wind, but the building survived,” he said.

As night fell, residents were turned away from returning home.

One Marathon resident said he is eager to get back home, even if he doesn’t know what he will find. “My expectation is that everything is half-destroyed,” he said. “I’m a tour guide, so I’m out of work for the next two months, but there will be plenty of work fixing the town.”

Tuesday night, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Col. Lou Caputo said search-and-rescue teams have made good progress reaching many homes and have found no casualties in their search.

Caputo said the teams 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. The search teams do not enter shuttered homes at this time.

When asked if they could do it all over again, most Keys survivors who spoke with 7News said they would have evacuated.

Residents who need help recovering after the storm may be eligible for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For more information, call 1-800-621-3362 or click here.

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