Recovery is only getting started, and some areas remain flooded. Utility companies are working to restore power to the battered Florida Keys as frustrated evacuees emerge from shelters ready to go home.
After meeting with military members in Fort Myers, the President, first lady Melania Trump and Vice President Mike Pence stood under a tent in Naples and handed out food to storm victims.
“I just want to tell you, we are there for you 100%. We’ll be back here numerous times,” President Trump said in Naples.
Long lines for gas, generators
Anxiety is building for residents who still may face days more without power. In the central Florida city of Sebring, about 70 miles southeast of Tampa, extensive outages have led to seemingly interminable lines at the few open stores carrying precious resources.
Sebring is the seat of Highlands County, where 82% of the county’s 62,400 utility customers still were without power Thursday — the largest percentage of any county in the state.
“It’s kind of a low-income area anyway and they’re not even looking at the price,” a Lowe’s manager, Krzysztof Rogowski, told WFTS about the customers’ desperation for generators.
Relief may be days away. People on the west coast, where Hurricane Irma made landfall, will likely have power restored by September 22, according to Florida Power & Light Co.
Customers who lost electricity on Florida’s eastern side will likely have it restored by the weekend because fewer electrical poles came down than in other parts of the state, the company said.
Massive power outages have crippled other Southeastern states, including Georgia, where more than 224,000 homes and businesses did not have power Thursday.
‘I didn’t think it would be that bad’
Jessica Gonzalez is back in her Florida neighborhood of LaBelle, but the heat is keeping her outdoors.
Her home was damaged by the storm and has no power. She celebrated her 20th birthday this week by waking up in her car with her husband and 2-year-old daughter.
They cook outside and sleep in their car.
“I honestly didn’t think it would be that bad. You hear a lot it’s Category 5, but you really don’t think it’s going to hit your house,” Gonzalez told CNN’s Ed Lavandera, referring to Irma’s strength in the Caribbean before the storm set its sights on Florida.
With no power and their house caving in, fellow LaBelle residents Bob and Tara Hahn have moved their 10 children into their oldest daughter’s two-bedroom house.
During the storm, a giant tree crashed into their home, sending whipping rain pouring inside. There are no answers on when the power will be back.
Officials told them it’ll take weeks, they said. As they wait, they have 17 people living under one roof.
‘Walking away … is very difficult’
Transportation officials offered positive news Thursday for some Floridians looking to return home: Interstate 75, a major north-south artery, will not be closed in the Gainesville area as once feared.
Officials had worried that a rising Santa Fe River might flood a portion of the highway, north of Gainesville, forcing detours that might have added hours to travel times. But the river has been receding, so the interstate will remain open, the Florida Department of Transportation said.
Brice Barr, who owns a charter fishing boat business in Key West, would like to head back south, but authorities are generally keeping people off the storm-damaged lower Keys, saying it’s not safe enough to return.
Barr and his wife fled to his parents’ home in the northern Florida city of Bronson ahead of the storm, he told CNN affiliate WCJB, and are watching for their moment to return.
“Walking away from a boat — that is one of my family’s main source of income — is very difficult to (do), especially when you secure all your property and everything else knowing that you may not see it again,” Barr told the TV station Wednesday.
Other Keys residents have made the drive, only to be turned back. Frustrations grew this week when some residents tried to go home along a two-lane stretch of highway through the Keys but couldn’t get through.
At a checkpoint on Lower Matecumbe Key, sheriff’s deputies turned away people trying to return to the lower Keys on Wednesday. Instead of going back, many pulled their cars over to the side of the highway, sat and waited.
A deputy at the checkpoint said authorities were trying to keep people safe, but some residents said they knew the risks and were willing to accept them. Many wanted to survey the damage; others wanted to prevent looting.
Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers asked residents for patience Thursday, citing the high number of power outages.
“If folks don’t have power to boil water or don’t have fuel to boil water, we’re really concerned about health, which is part of why we’re not inviting everyone back yet” to part of the Keys, she said.
At least 34 storm-related deaths have been reported on the US mainland, according to local officials. They include 27 in Florida, four in South Carolina and three in Georgia. That number doesn’t include the nursing home deaths, which police said are under investigation.
The nursing home deaths Wednesday in Hollywood prompted officials to call for action. Florida has the largest percentage of residents age 65 or older — 19.1%, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I’m going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place,” the governor said. “… I am also asking available first responders to immediately check in with the health care facilities in their area to make sure nursing homes and assisted living facilities are able to keep their residents safe.”
Irma, which stretched 650 miles from east to west, has pummeled at least nine states — deluging streets, knocking over trees and destroying homes along the way.
CNN’s Miguel Marquez, Chris Boyette, Tina Burnside, Rene Marsh, Joe Sutton, AnneClaire Stapleton, Darran Simon and Keith Allen contributed to this report.