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Florida begins recovery but restoring power poses big challenge

September 12, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
Evacuees across Florida are making their way back home after Hurricane Irma but many must confront the hard work of recovery. Nearly every house in the Keys was impacted and the Jacksonville area remains under water and without power. John Yang is joined by P.J. Tobia, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and David Ovalle of the Miami Herald to learn how Floridians are faring.
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JOHN YANG: The somber tallies keep mounting tonight in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. The death toll has risen to 55. Many thousands are struggling to get back home across Florida, and officials are rushing aid to the state’s hardest-hit sections.

P.J. Tobia begins our coverage.

P.J. TOBIA: Roads leading to the shattered Florida Keys reopened early this morning. People lined up in cars, anxious to return to their homes, or whatever remains of them, and tensions were running high.

MAN: Right now, we don’t know where to go.

P.J. TOBIA: Some found lawns filled with debris, siding ripped off their houses, trailer homes and boats knocked over like toy models.

Governor Rick Scott flew over Florida’s coast on Monday.

GOV. RICK SCOTT, R-Fla: If you were in the Keys, you have seen the pictures. The trailer parks, it’s like everybody just tipped everything over. You’re just praying that everybody is alive. We’re still having — I have been talking to the people down there. We’re still having in the Keys issues with getting the water started back up, sewage and their power back up.

P.J. TOBIA: Scott says the bridges linking the Keys do not appear damaged, but he urged caution, as engineers make inspections.

GOV. RICK SCOTT: Even though you can see that people are traveling, you’re not sure that, on the bridges, they can take any significant weight.

P.J. TOBIA: In Washington, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, gave a somber assessment.

BROCK LONG, Administrator, FEMA: Twenty-five percent of the houses initially have been destroyed and 65 percent have major damage. Basically, every house in the Keys was impacted in some way or another. This is why we asked people to leave.

P.J. TOBIA: All told, 6.5 million Floridians were asked to leave before the storm, one of the largest evacuation orders in U.S. history.

Today, many who were part of the mass exodus sat in lines of traffic on their way back in. Some are returning to beachfront homes beyond repair. Nearly all will find they have no power.

Millions lost electricity during the storm, and Florida’s largest power company says they will have longer to wait before it’s restored.

ROBERT GOULD, Florida Power and Light: The eastern portion of Florida had less damage in some respects than the western side of our state. So along the eastern seaboard, if you will, the eastern portion of our territory, we expect to be essentially restored all customers by the end of this coming weekend. As far as the west coast of Florida, if you will, we expect to have all of our customers essentially restored by Friday, September 22.

P.J. TOBIA: Flooding has compounded the woes, especially in Jacksonville in North Florida. After the Saint Johns River and its tributaries overflowed onto main roads yesterday, parts of the city were still submerged today.

ROBIN PATTON, Jacksonville Resident: I’m a born and raised native of Jacksonville. We have never had anything like this in the park. I survived Hurricane Dora in 1964. We had canoes, people in canoes, going up and down the street, because there was flooding, but never anything like this in our city, ever that I have ever seen.

P.J. TOBIA: Underwater and without electricity, Jacksonville area residents are concerned that the area’s frequent high tides could mean that waters like this will stick around for sometime to come.

Floodwaters inundated neighborhoods in the town of Middleburg today, a half-hour from downtown Jacksonville. Some residents returned to save their pets. Adding to the region’s misery, life without air conditioning, in 80-plus degrees.

WOMAN: It is pretty hot. I think in the next couples days it’s probably going to really test our patience.

P.J. TOBIA: In many places, like Daytona Beach, the water has receded, and homeowners now confront the hard work of recovery.

RAYMOND LANGLOIS, Daytona Beach Resident: And all this was like a river. Everything was like a river. And even my backyard, it was bad. It was probably the worst one I have seen, and I have been here for 15 years.

P.J. TOBIA: Meanwhile, Miami Beach reopened today, despite widespread power outages, and flights resumed at airports across South Florida.

States to the north also face major cleanups and recovery. As Irma passed yesterday, Charleston, South Carolina, saw everything from waterspouts off the coast, to storm surge flooding downtown streets. Flooding and power outages also plagued parts of Georgia, but the governor lifted a coastal evacuation order today.

Here in North Florida, recovery from Hurricane Irma has just begun, but local officials have told me that it could be as long as three days before floodwaters, like those behind me, even begin to recede. Earlier today, President Trump said that he’d be coming to the state on Thursday to survey the damage himself — John.

JOHN YANG: P.J., if the center of the storm went up the west coast of Florida, why is there so much flooding and why was flooding so bad on the east coast where you are?

P.J. TOBIA: That’s a good question.

Yes, I’m about 30 minutes right now southwest of Jacksonville, so, yes, on the eastern part of the state. The way that Irma’s wrath was primarily felt here was as a rain event, although there was quite a bit of wind knocking down power lines, which is the reason so many are without power tonight.

But there was so much rain, many inches, historic highs in some places. So rivers and creeks just burst their banks. This part of Florida, like much of the state, is low country, so folks are used to occasional floods a few times a year. Most of that is tidal flooding. When the tide comes in, there may be floods. When it goes out, the water quickly recedes.

But add in all this rain and you have water that sticks around and sticks around for a long time, as so many officials fear.

JOHN YANG: And, P.J., you’re up near the Georgia border, but you have been running into a lot of people who evacuated from the Florida Keys. What have they been telling you?

P.J. TOBIA: Yes, Central and North Florida were considered a place of refuge for folks from the Keys. We were in Orlando yesterday. Don’t forget, Orlando’s five hours or more from some parts of the Florida Keys. So in the hotels and restaurants while they were open, you would see these folks.

And at first, late last week and over the weekend, they were just happy to be out of the storm’s wrath, better safe than sorry, they told me. But now that they’re seeing the pictures from their hometowns and folks who remained are calling them, I spoke with one who said she’s actually kind of angry.

She heard that her property — she actually owns two homes — her properties were more or less OK and she desperately wants to get back to the Keys to check them out, to clean up any debris, to see if there is any damage, say, to the roof, to prevent any further damage if it rains more.

There’s actually quite a bit of anger that they left and now they may not be able to get in because bridges may be out and roads may be closed.

JOHN YANG: The folks down there in Florida have been on edge about this storm for more than a week now. What’s the mood like? What are people feeling?

P.J. TOBIA: People are definitely getting a bit cranky. The storm came this weekend, so folks have been without power in some cases for a few days.

Only a very few restaurants and gas stations are open. So getting something to eat or filling up that gas tank can often be an hours-long affair. People are pretty tired of eating granola bars and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And so there’s that.

And then in addition, you know, public security officials, disaster rescue, first-responders are exhausted. They have been on call, some of them, for more than a week. Today, we actually encountered a convoy of fan boats and other shallow-water craft coming from neighboring states like Louisiana and Mississippi to help give some relief to those first-responders who have been doing so much to try to help their communities, so they can go home and check on their own homes and their own families, John.

JOHN YANG: A lot of hard work down there, including you, P.J. Tobia and producer Steve Morde (ph).

Thank you very much.

P.J. TOBIA: Thanks so much, John.

JOHN YANG: Officials in Jacksonville have many immediate concerns, but the flooding presents some long-term challenges.

I spoke a little while ago with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry.

Mayor Curry, welcome.

Can you tell us, what’s the latest? What’s the latest situation in Jacksonville right now?

MAYOR LENNY CURRY, Jacksonville, Florida: Well, we’re now in recovery mode.

Yesterday turned into rescue day all day. So we knew this was going to be a serious event. I issued mandatory evacuations. In fact, voluntary evacuations started last Wednesday. We told people they would be mandatory by Friday, and we did that.

We knew even though it was moving west, it was still going to be furious. We told our people it was going to be a major event. And what happened yesterday morning is we recognized with new information that we had Category 3 hurricane-type storm surge coming, even though it was a tropical storm that went through.

So we had to move quickly yesterday morning and have people that didn’t evacuate to call us. We asked them to put white flags out on their doors somewhere where we could visibly see them from the road. And our rescue crews went in with the help of state agencies as well, and saved over 300 people yesterday.

JOHN YANG: You say you’re in recovery mode right now. What’s the biggest problem? Is it the water, the floodwaters? Is it the lack of power?

MAYOR LENNY CURRY: The water has started to recede. Power, getting power back up and running, we have an independent power utility here, the JEA.

So, they are working to restore power. Some of their challenges are downed trees blocking roadways. So, there’s cut-and-toss crews that are clearing roads so they can get up and restore that power.

JOHN YANG: What’s your biggest concern right now, and what’s your most pressing need?

MAYOR LENNY CURRY: We have got a lot of needs.

I want to ensure that our people have water in the time of waiting to get their power restored. Most important thing is I want the get people’s electricity back up and running. And then we just have to rebuild. We’re going to have infrastructure issues. But we will get through all of that.

The most important thing is individual lives. And the best of our best stepped up yesterday, first-responders including neighbors that helped each other. And, you know, you recognize the simple things, the ability to have a cup of coffee with someone you care about, or spend some time with them, is what matters.

We want to get power restored and get everyone’s life back to normal.

JOHN YANG: How long is that going to take, to get all the power back?

MAYOR LENNY CURRY: They’re working aggressively. They haven’t put a specific deadline on that.

We did secure nighttime construction lights. I called the governor before the storm for the big lights you see on the interstates when they’re doing roadwork. We secured a number of those before the storm so our crews could work at night. And the utility secured additional assets, additional manpower and trucks in place.

And we’re just going to push them hard, we’re going to push each other hard, grind it out to get people back up and running.

JOHN YANG: Mayor Lenny Curry of Jacksonville, Florida, we wish you well on the road to recovery.

MAYOR LENNY CURRY: Thank you.

JOHN YANG: We now turn from Jacksonville down to the Florida Keys.

Irma devastated that string of islands. I spoke with David Ovalle of The Miami Herald, who was in Key West when the hurricane hit and traveled back along the Keys yesterday.

DAVID OVALLE, Miami Herald: It was very hard to tell the extent of the damage because there was still a lot of areas you could not get to.

But certainly it looked like a war zone. There was downed trees everywhere. There were boats that were flipped up on the road. There were trailer parks that were just completely demolished that looked like they were just smashed by a bomb.

But there was also a lot of neighborhoods, even near the epicenter, even at Cudjoe Key, where the eye wall came across the Florida Keys. There were neighborhoods that were intact. And there were these big concrete structures basically on stilts.

The first level is just designed for the storm surge to pass through. So it’s still hard to see the extent of the damage. Certainly, almost every house in the Keys was damaged, but I think it’s too early to say that they’re actually obliterated.

JOHN YANG: And what were conditions like? Was there water? I doubt there was power.

DAVID OVALLE: There’s definitely no power in the Keys. There’s no cell phone service.

For the perhaps 10,000 people that are still in the Florida Keys, it is going to be a very uncomfortable couple weeks. There are a lot of worried residents who are worried about their homes that are outside of Miami and their families.

So it’s going to be a long, hot slog for a lot of people, and the officials are really telling people not to try to come back too soon because they don’t need any more mouths to feed.

JOHN YANG: Did you have any trouble getting up US-1? The officials have been talking about they’re worried about the conditions of the bridges, which are essentially the entire length of US-1.

DAVID OVALLE: We didn’t have any real trouble getting up. A couple hours after the storm, we couldn’t get past a certain bridge, I believe, after Little Torch Key because there was just too much debris.

But by the morning, they had already started clearing it. So we had to maneuver around a lot of debris. There’s just levels of seagrass that were just clogging up the roads. So we had to be very careful. We ended up bursting a flat as we were going back up.

But we did make it back. You can do it, but certainly they need to make sure it’s 100 percent for all the supplies you’re going to have to bring in.

JOHN YANG: And what were the people who rode out the storm, who stayed in the Keys during the storm, what were they telling you?

DAVID OVALLE: A lot of the people who stayed in the Keys are very independent-minded.

They’re very strong. They don’t want to be away from their businesses. They don’t want to be away from their homes. And they felt they could do it. There’s so many hurricanes that have come past the Keys, and some of them have hit. Most have not.

But I think a lot of them thought, hey, you know what, I’m going to ride this out. And, frankly, there are a lot of people of low economic means, people who are elderly, people on fixed incomes, immigrants who work in the hospitality service, people with dogs. A lot of people just didn’t feel they could get out, and they ended up riding out the storm in those refuges of last resort.

JOHN YANG: David Ovalle of The Miami Herald, thanks so much for sharing your firsthand experience.

DAVID OVALLE: Thank you. Appreciate it.

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