Storm-battered Florida began the long road to recovery on Tuesday, as aid began arriving in cities hit by the hurricane and residents were allowed to start returning to the upper islands of the Florida Keys, one of the worst-affected regions.
Almost two thirds of homes across the state remain without power two days after Hurricane Irma tore up Florida’s peninsula. Authorities warned of fuel shortages across the south-east of the US as a result of Hurricane Irma arriving so soon after Hurricane Harvey knocked out refining facilities and terminals in Texas.
Irma, since downgraded to a tropical storm, has been linked to 11 deaths across the US. The latest was a 55-year-old man who died when his chainsaw became entangled in a fallen branch, causing it to kick up and cut his carotid artery. But now the hundreds of thousands of people who fled the impending wall of wind at the end of last week can think about returning home and beginning the clean-up.
All around Fort Lauderdale, which missed the eye of the storm, people who stayed behind spent Tuesday raking up fallen branches, repairing fences and returning satellite dishes to roofs. InJacksonville, the storm caused record flooding
Further south, residents of the Florida Keys know they could be returning to a disaster zone. It was here that Irma roared ashore on Key Cudjoe as a powerful category four storm on Sunday morning. Officials have been checking the integrity of bridges that connect the island chain to the mainland and to each other and are now allowing residents and business owners to begin returning to Key Largo, the main island at the northern end of the chain, as well as the towns of Tavernier and Islamorada, further to the south.
However, returnees were warned that recovery efforts would be painstakingly slow and the advice was not to stay long.
Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said: “This is going to be a frustrating event. It's going to take some time to let people back into their homes particularly in the Florida Keys.”
A local county commissioner also said that people had been killed there. "We are finding some remains," Heather Carruthers told CNN, without providing further details.
Meanwhile, the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln arrived off the east coast of Florida. It was due to be joined by two amphibious assault ships as part of an effort to distribute food to people in the Keys and to help remove about 10,000 residents who did not leave before the storm.
President Donald Trump took to Twitter to praise the recovery effort.
“The devastation left by Hurricane Irma was far greater, at least in certain locations, than anyone thought — but amazing people working hard,” he wrote.
Elsewhere, several southern airports — including Fort Lauderdale and Miami International — resumed limited passenger services. Utility companies reported more than seven million homes and businesses remain without electricity in Florida and neighbouring states and warned that it could take weeks to restore a full service.
In all, the repair bill will run into tens of billions of dollars in damage and lost economic output. The cost of insurance pay-outs alone could amount to $40 billion (Dh 146 billion), according to the catastrophe modelling firm AIR Worldwide.
In Fort Lauderdale, lorries from the local power company could be seen travelling in convoy before first light as they set about trying to restore electricity supplies. Their first priority was restoring power to traffic lights, many of which had failed, thus raising the risk of accidents.Stores gradually began to open.
“We were open yesterday,” said Nelson, owner of American Coffee Shop, one of the few diners open in the immediate aftermath. “I had to get the milk myself, driving all over town to find somewhere open.”
The longest car line was not for the handful of petrol stations that had supplies, but for a McDonald’s drive-thru in North Fort Lauderdale.
Many across the state are counting their blessings. It could have been much worse if Irma had continued on its predicted course and slammed into Miami as a category four or five storm. Instead it tracked west, dumping its rain and fury on the unpopulated Everglades, and weakening rapidly over land. But it still set records as the longest-lasting powerful hurricane or typhoon ever recorded anywhere in the world.
Phil Klotzblache, a research scientist at Colorado State University, said it maintained winds of 300kph for 37 hours making it the "the longest any cyclone around the globe has maintained that intensity on record". The previous record was held by Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in 2013.
Irma also held hurricane status for almost 12 days and for more than three days was a category five storm, putting it on a par with a hurricane that struck Cuba in 1932.
Caribbean islands bore the brunt of that intense power. Irma was responsible for nearly 40 deaths, a number that has been ticking upward day by day.
Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire, said most of the buildings and vegetation on his private island Necker had been destroyed or damaged.
In a statement posted on Virgin’s website he added that he was looking at ways to help aid agencies in their emergency response, having seen "first-hand how ferocious and unforgiving this storm was".
He and his team hunkered down in a wine cellar to escape the storm as it barrelled through the Caribbean and the 50 or so British Virgin Islands last week.
“We will do whatever we can to support and assist our local community through this extremely testing time. If our really strong buildings sustained such damage, I am so worried for elsewhere in the BVI and Caribbean,” he said.