CNN | | Español | Listen

Florida Keys: Anxious residents return to battered homes

Updated 9:25 AM ET, Wed September 13, 2017

Key Largo, Florida (CNN) - Heidi and Allan Neuzil grew frustrated Tuesday after waiting more than 14 hours for authorities to let them back in to the battered Florida Keys.

The parents of three boys were part of a large group of Keys residents awaiting permission to return to their homes and survey the damage wrought by Hurricane Irma.

"I just want to go home!" Allan Neuzil screamed at authorities from the side of the road.

He wasn't the only one exasperated enough to yell at police. Other residents joined him as officers directed traffic and vehicles at the front of the line jockeyed to get ahead of each other.

Heidi Neuzil broke down as she pondered the potential scene they'd find upon arriving in Key Largo.

"I don't know what we're going to do if we don't have a home," she asked. "Where will we go?"

'Oh my God, the roof!'

About 7 a.m. ET, police began letting residents back into the ravaged island chain. Upon leaving the Florida mainland, Key Largo is the first town in what is known as the Upper Keys, the easternmost third of the archipelago that includes Tavernier and Islamorada.

Weak connection? Get text-only Irma updates

West of that, in the Middle and Lower Keys, rescue and recovery workers are working to clear roads and inspect bridges so that residents and business owners can return. But even in the Upper Keys, "water, power, sewer, fuel, medical service and cell service, are still limited," according to Monroe County. The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority was advising residents to boil their tap water, if they have any.

As the Neuzils made their way home in their pickup truck -- adorned with the yellow residency sticker that grants them and others access to the Keys -- Allan Neuzil pointed to a shipyard.

"Look, the dock is destroyed," he said.

Irma's path, city-by-city

Soon after, they arrived home to find their residence propping up five downed trees.

"Oh my God, the roof!" Heidi exclaimed, beginning to weep again. "The roof is cracked in the back of the house."

A closer look at the rear of the house revealed a morsel of good news: Only a small corner of the house had been breached by the trees and the powerful hurricane that blew them over. The Neuzils' boat was damaged as well, but it, too, had largely escaped Irma's battering. The hull remained intact.

"I'm just glad it's over," Allan Neuzil said.

Residents trickle home

For most Florida Keys residents, recovery is far from over, and there's a one in four chance that those returning won't be able to live in what they come home to find. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that 25% of houses on the archipelago are destroyed. About 65% are damaged, according to FEMA's initial figures.

Drone footage shows vehicles crawling down the southbound lanes of US 1, also known as the Overseas Highway. The 113-mile thoroughfare carries travelers from the southern tip of Florida over more than 40 bridges to Key West.

What awaits residents in the Middle and Upper Keys is unclear, but there are signs that Irma, which made its first US landfall on Cudjoe Key, about 20 miles east of Key West, was anything but merciful to the Conch Republic.

Politics, polemic in Caribbean post-Irma

In Plantation Key, homes were ripped open like Christmas gifts. Furniture, sinks and toilets sat on the coral-filled ground alongside children's books and a bingo wheel. RVs lay on their sides in Sunshine Key. Boats lay beached next to homes and along the highway in Big Pine Key and in Marathon. The white tails of endangered Key deer, which normally stay on their refuge, were seen bobbing along US 1.

In Big Pine Key, which was cut off from the other islands by water and a large pole Monday, houses were seen smoldering. Footage from Key West's Old Town showed what resembled a river running through the streets, just a block from the bars that populate Duval Street.

The Atlantic Ocean side of the islands took the worst pounding. All along the coast, there were houses missing entire walls, swaths of their roofs peeled off like bandages. Concrete pillars that once propped up homes stood empty, propping up nothing.

Other houses looked as if the tide had washed everything out of them, leaving sand and ankle-deep seaweed in place of furniture.

Making contact

Yet there were signs that rescuers and other officials were making headway as the floodwaters abated and roads reopened.

Donning helmets and carrying flashlights and tools designed to lift and break up debris, the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team trod the Keys in the early morning hours Tuesday looking for victims. They were supported by the Florida National Guard and its aircraft, which were helping assess the damage, said Adjutant Gen. Mike Calhoun. Planes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration joined the effort.

NOAA helps residents check on homes

On Big Pine Key, innkeeper and yacht captain Tim Marquis was assessing the damage at Barnacle Bed & Breakfast and Dive Resort early Monday. He and two others had ridden out the storm there. It's on the Atlantic side of the island, not far from where Irma made landfall.

When the storm hit, Marquis said, water came over the 14-foot-high patio at the inn he has called home since 1995.

"Actually in the middle of the hurricane, water was coming over that patio right there and right through here," he said from a common area inside the B&B.

Without power, water or communications since the weekend, Marquis had been incommunicado. Rescuers gave him a satellite phone to contact his wife, who sought refuge in Louisiana last week. It was before dawn. She didn't pick up.

"Hey, I guess you're probably asleep or something," Marquis said, leaving a message. "Some rescue guys came by so they've got a phone. I could call and let you know that we're OK, and we'll see you when you get ready to come back. And I'll call you as soon as we get cell phone service here. All right, love you. Talk to you later."

Harvey, then Irma, now Jose?

Ira Konkrate, another Big Pine resident, stopped to speak to CNN affiliate WFOR-TV as he searched for his brother.

"I'm going back up to one of my divisions where my brother's at. We haven't heard from him yet. I work at Winn-Dixie and that was our safe haven for our employees that stayed in the area, and he didn't show up," Konkrate said.

As Konkrate spoke to reporters, a man on a bicycle pulled up and told Konkrate he had hunkered down with his brother during the storm. His brother was safe, much to Konkrate's relief.

'Florida's calling'

As search teams continue to hunt for victims in the Lower Keys, it's clear Monroe County faces a daunting task. But things are already looking much better than they were Monday.

Two 300-foot portions of the Overseas Highway on Lower Matecumbe and Bahia Honda keys were washed out by Irma's storm surge, but late Tuesday, Florida transportation officials said they had inspected all the bridges along US 1 and repaired two stretches of the highway. The bridges and US 1 are safe to travel, but are limited to first responders, officials said.

Airports in Key West and Marathon, as well as at Naval Air Station Key West, are now operational and receiving emergency resources. Commercial flights remain suspended, however.

The three main hospitals, in Tavernier, Marathon and Key West, remain closed but "are working quickly to be able to receive patients," according to the county. Three air ambulances are expected to return to Monroe County from Alabama on Tuesday.

How to help Irma victims

At Orlando International Airport, 31 medical specialists, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists, loaded two Coast Guard C-17s with medical supplies, all-terrain vehicles and boats before heading to Key West with about rescue teams and law enforcement officers, said Jason McDonald, spokesman for the US Department of Health and Human Services.

As team leader Toby Clairmont gathered responders together before loading the planes, he told them, "We're here. Florida's calling. There's trouble in the Keys."

Shelters are being opened across the Keys, and officials are establishing distribution points where residents can pick up food and water. Among them: Key West Sears Town Plaza, the Sugarloaf School on Summerland Key, Marathon High School and the National Wildlife Refuge on Big Pine Key.

"Monroe County is working quickly to restore services and make the county safe for residents and business owners in the Middle and Lower Keys to return, but this will take time," the county said in a news release.