Power coming back, residents return in Irma-battered Florida

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. —  Virtually all East Coast customers of the state's biggest provider of power should have power restored by Sunday, and western customers will be fully up and running five days later, Florida Power & Light said Tuesday.

Company spokesman Rob Gould said a preliminary assessment of Hurricane Irma's devastation indicated damage to the electrical infrastructure was not as extensive as expected. That included the western coast, which took a direct hit from Irma.

"What we're seeing is encouraging, particularly on the west coast where our main transmission structures have not come down," said Gould, whose company provides service to about half the state's 10.5 million power accounts. He said there would be a few exceptions where damage was particularly severe.

About half of the state's 21 million residents were without power. Gov. Rick Scott said more than 30,000 out-of-state utility workers were aiding the effort to turn lights on across the state.

Meanwhile, parts of Florida inched back toward normal. Workers cleared roads and replenished gas supplies, and residents drifted back from shelters and far-away havens and many flights resumed, although flooded streets remained in some areas.

The White House said President Trump would visit the state Thursday.

"My concern continues for all impacted by the hurricanes," first lady Melania Trump tweeted. "Will fly to #Florida on Thursday w @potus to survey the damages from #HurricaneIrma."

Irma smashed into Florida on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane with 130-mph winds. The storm brought havoc to Georgia and South Carolina as well. Irma was blamed for more than a dozen deaths in the region, including at least seven in Florida. At least 35 people were killed in the Caribbean last week.

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The U.S. Agriculture Department said Tuesday that Irma victims who are recipients of food stamps can use them for hot foods, normally a violation of the program's rules. It also is directing Florida and Georgia to issue food stamps more quickly this month.

Irma first made landfall on the Florida Keys, then again later Sunday on Marco Island on the state's Gulf Coast. The storm roared north, flooding streets, toppling trees and power lines and snapping construction cranes across most of the state.

Scott said all the state's highway and turnpikes were open, and a massive effort was underway to get gas to service stations. Many roads were backed up for miles as residents made the pilgrimage back to their homes.

Authorities on the Florida Keys on Tuesday began allowing residents and workers to return to the upper islands in the chain — Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada. The sun was shining and the sky was blue, but the damage to the islands, particularly the lower islands, was catastrophic.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long said the agency was inspecting bridges to the lower Keys to ensure their safety. He said about 25% of homes on the Keys were destroyed, and another two-thirds were damaged. 

"Basically, every house on the Keys was impacted," Long said.

In Central Florida, Walt Disney World opened for business in Orlando — and the Magic Kingdom appeared untouched. Paola Pedroso, 28, traveled from Brazil with her bridal party. They stayed at a hotel near Universal Studios during the worst of the storm.

"Our family and friends (back home)  were scared more than us, because everybody was talking about it," said Pedroso, a white Mickey Mouse house hat and veil atop her head. "I thought it was going to be a huge thing, but it wasn't."

In Cocoa Beach, 60 miles east of Orlando, more than 82,000 people remained without drinkable water while workers scrambled Monday to fix breaches in the water system.

"It's starting to come back, but there's no guarantees," Cocoa City Manager John Titkanich said. He said it could be a few days before the water is safe to drink.

"Boil your water until the city says 'don't boil your water,'" he said.

North Florida was not exempt from Irma's wrath. Scott and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny viewed the flood-damaged city near the Georgia border from the air Tuesday.

"We were shocked yesterday when the flooding started happening here," Scott said. "Thank God everybody helped everybody."

Curry said 356 residents were rescued from the floodwaters by emergency response teams.

“It was a sight to be seen,” Curry said. "Now we just begin to rebuild."

The cruise industry was returning to life. Royal Caribbean and Carnival planned to resume sailings out of Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades later in the day. Carnival said it would resume sailings out of Miami on Wednesday.

More: Florida Keys evacuees frustrated in the trek to go home

In Georgia, Irma slammed some areas with six inches or more of rain, and Atlanta had wind gusts in excess of 60 mph. Damage and flooding was reported in some coastal communities that saw more than 500,000 people evacuate ahead of the storm. Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman said hundreds of homes were flooded there.

Parts of South Carolina also saw heavy wind and rain, and historic Charleston was among cities dealing with flooding.

Alabama and North Carolina declared states of emergency ahead of the storm, and remnants of Irma were sweeping through several other states, the National Weather Service said. 

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said National Guard chain-saw crews were aiding Transportation Department workers clearing roads in the western part of the state, where Irma's assault was most severe.

"We did not see major flooding, that's very positive," Cooper said.

Rodriguez reported from Florida, Bacon from McLean, Va. Contributing: Gene Sloan, USA TODAY; Jim Waymer, Caroline Glenn, Florida Today; Mark Barrett, The (Asheville, N.C.) Citizen-Times, and The Associated Press.