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Florida Keys Residents Demand To Get Back Home As Officials Call The Islands A "Humanitarian Crisis"

It could be weeks before residents who abandoned their homes following the mandatory evacuation are allowed back.

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Updated on

HOMESTEAD, Florida — Residents of the ravaged Florida Keys on Monday demanded that they be allowed to return as Irma moved north of the state, leaving massive flooding in its wake.

Irma made landfall Sunday morning on Cudjoe Key — one of the chain of islands that make up the Keys — as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 130 mph. Videos and photos posted on social media show toppled trees, destroyed vehicles, and boats in the middle of the street throughout the area but mostly in the southern parts of the Keys.

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Martin Senterfitt, the emergency management director of Monroe County, which includes most of the Keys, said. “Help is on the way.”

Tom Bossert, President Trump’s homeland security adviser, said Monday that he would not be surprised if lives were lost, adding, “We're doing everything we can to help them.”

"It looks like a nuclear bomb went off here," one Key Largo man told BuzzFeed News by phone on Sunday.

Federal officials said the islands would't be equipped for repopulation for weeks, but Monroe County on Monday night said entry into the Keys would open at 7 a.m. Tuesday for residents of Key Largo, Tavernier, and Islamorada. Those hoping to gain access will need a yellow re-entry sticker or proof of residency or business ownership in either of the three cities.

Other updates on getting the Keys back online were being posted to the county's Facebook page.

Reed Timmer Extreme Meteorologist / Facebook / Via Facebook: video.php

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay, meanwhile, called for a dusk-to-dawn curfew until further notice, citing safety conditions.

“The wind may have stopped blowing, but for most of the Florida Keys, there is no fuel, electricity, running water, or cell service. For many people, supplies are running low and anxiety is running high,” the county said in a statement.

Military airborne missions conducted by C-130 cargo planes are carrying supplies and recovery personnel to the area, the Air Force has been deployed, and Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt said “disaster mortuary teams” are en route to the Keys to assess aid the recovery process.

There is no power, water, or flushing toilets, the Key West city manager said during a conference call with local, state, and federal officials on Monday, according to the Miami Herald.

One major issue is the condition of the string of bridges that connect the miles of islands, which have to be inspected by the Department of Transportation.

"We have not assessed the structural integrity of the bridges there. There's some early reason to believe that some of the drawbridges that were up may or may not have been bent. Restoring those is going to take some time,” Bossert said.

Still, furious Keys residents who adhered to the mandatory evacuation of their homes and businesses banged their trucks and screamed at local authorities Monday who refused to let them drive down US Highway 1 back to their homes.

Many vowed to not evacuate in the event of future hurricanes.

"None of these people, none of us will ever evacuate again, ever. I wouldn't have left my home if I had any idea that this would happen," said Mark Serota, 52, a photographer from Tavernier.

“I’ve been through every storm that has hit South Florida for the last 30 years,” he added. "I’ve never seen people in the Keys evacuate like they did this time. But what they’re doing here, right now, in this moment, is going to undo all of that. And they’re going to have a worse time the next storm hits.”

Reed Timmer Extreme Meteorologist / Facebook / Via Facebook: video.php

But state Rep. Holly Raschein said during Monday’s call with local and federal officials that the area is not prepared for the general population to return to the islands, according to the Herald.

And the Route 1 bridge still has to be looked at for structural integrity, officials said.

But those explanations did little to allay the frustrations of stranded residents.

"Right now, we don't know where to go!" Shelby Bentley, a 41-year-old charter boat captain, told a police officer.

Bentley had been waiting in his car at a gas station at the start of US Highway 1, where the sheriff's office had erected roadblocks, since 2 a.m. with his pregnant wife.

He said all hotels in the area were booked. Although he was unsure of his own home in Cudjoe Key, Bentley said he had access to a relative’s home in Key Largo — where most buildings are relatively unscathed — for them to stay in.

Peter Aldhous/BuzzFeed News / Via crowdrescuehq.org

Calls for rescue on social media compiled by the volunteer group CrowdRescue

"Why did I evacuate the Keys, I'd rather fucking die down there," screamed one resident.

Only emergency services — Red Cross staff, paramedics, power supply workers, etc. — had been allowed to drive into the Keys on Monday. Locals, who said they lined up for yellow resident car stickers from the sheriff's office before the hurricane hit, were told later that the stickers didn't mean anything.

Warren Stincer, 64, a retired boat captain who lives in Key Largo, said he was desperate to just get back home since he knew his property was OK.

Another resident told BuzzFeed News she'd spent $1,000 evacuating her home and wouldn't do it again.

"I'm so mad for leaving," she said.

Despite the mandatory evacuation order, some residents chose to not leave their homes during the hurricane.

One man, who posted to Twitter that his father and stepmother were riding out the storm at their Summerland Keys home, told BuzzFeed News it was hours before he learned of their safety.

He said there is no cell phone service that far down the Keys, but that they were able to alert him of their safety through a SPOT GPS notification system — which his father had from boat captaining — that sends messages via satellite to a saved list of email addresses.

Bob Thomas, who owns Key Largo Chocolates and Ice Cream and is aware that his business and home are OK, agreed.

"More of a reason for us not to leave in the next hurricane," he said. "We've got 60 tubs of ice cream that are soup."

Amber Jamieson is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Amber Jamieson at amber.jamieson@buzzfeed.com.

Mary Ann Georgantopoulos is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Mary Ann Georgantopoulos at maryann.georgantopoulos@buzzfeed.com.

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