Hurricane-ravaged U.S. cities hit by rising cleanup costs

FILE PHOTO: Flood-damaged contents from people's homes line the street following the aftermath of tropical storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas, U.S., September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

By Rod Nickel

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Communities in Texas and Florida, each swamped by a hurricane within two weeks of one another, are rewriting debris removal contracts and paying millions of dollars more to lure trucks, as subcontractors say costs have jumped.

The willingness of communities to renegotiate such contracts in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida shows the limits of pre-planning for events as unpredictable as back-to-back hurricanes.

Higher fees, however, may not be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), even after these huge storms brought intense public pressure to clear millions of cubic yards of rubbish from streets and damaged furnishings from flooded homes and businesses.

In Texas, Houston is considering a 50-percent increase in pay for haulers and Harris County, which encompasses the city, is also offering incentives to recruit more trucks. In Florida, the City of Miami hiked its rates for debris removal by as much as double to DRC Emergency Services, CrowderGulf LLC and Ceres Environmental Services Inc, city documents show.

Local officials are rewriting contracts to attract subcontractors from other regions and businesses such as logging and dirt-hauling, citing a shortage of trucks to cart debris away because fleets are stretched across two devastated states. The removal business relies on networks of subcontracted trucks when disasters strike.

DRC’s subcontracting costs have jumped by at least 30 percent, said John Sullivan, president of the Galveston, Texas-based disaster specialist, shrinking margins to “almost nothing” as the company has to pay more to attract truck owners.

“It’s not a renegotiation, it’s a necessity,” Sullivan said. “The increase that we’re getting is all going to (pay) costs.”

Subcontractors often include out-of-state operators lured by the opportunity for a financial windfall.

Johnny Helaire, owner of Crossroads Trucking Service, said the Houston cleanup offers steady work at a time when his dirt and gravel business is slumping.

Each of Helaire’s 12 trucks earns on average $800 gross per day more in Houston than they would loading dirt, not counting hotel and food expenses, he said, while directing workers through a headset like a football coach.

Across the Texas Gulf Coast, Harvey left as much as 200 million cubic yards (153 million cubic meters) of trash that must be removed, the state has estimated.

Much of that still lines local streets. Houston’s director of solid waste management, Harry Hayes estimated that just 5 percent of the city’s debris had been cleared by Sept. 20.

“Houston ended up being ground zero. A thousand-year rain event is going to generate a wider field of debris, considering our population,” than in smaller Texan cities, Hayes said.

The city wants to increase its debris-hauling rate to $11.84 per cubic yard from $7.86, an amount that would help it get 200 more trucks from contractors, he said. Houston now has about 330 in service.

DRC expects to handle 2.5 million cubic yards in the Houston area alone. On that basis, Houston’s pay increase would amount to $10 million more.

Officials delayed a vote on the rate increase on Wednesday as they sought more information.

Harris County, one of the most populous U.S. counties, is offering incentives worth an additional $3 to $5 per cubic yard because small trucks cannot profit at the rate for trucks with bigger capacity, said county engineer John Blount.

Paying more for trucks is critical to recruiting more away from their normal businesses, said Glen Nelson, owner of DNR Group, which specializes in disaster clean-up. Even so, he said he is earning half of what he did for Hurricane Katrina cleanup in 2005.

RAISING FEES “SMELLS”

Bruce Hotze, treasurer of Houston watchdog group Let the People Vote, said offering to increase payments to disposal companies “smells.”

“If they needed prices to go up it should have happened before the hurricane,” he said.

Texan cities Rockport and Corpus Christi, both near where Harvey made first landfall, said they will not pay more.

“You hold those contractors accountable to provide what they said they would provide for you,” said Mike Donoho, Rockport’s public works director.

Alabama-based CrowderGulf has not asked communities for higher pay because of the risk that those fees will not be reimbursed by FEMA, said Chief Operating Officer Ashley Ramsay-Naile. Some of its contracts state that CrowderGulf will not get paid for amounts that FEMA does not cover, she said.

FEMA reimburses 90 percent of debris expenses, and covers pay above contracted rates only if municipalities show it is justified, said FEMA spokeswoman Barb Sturner.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Houston; editing by Gary McWilliams and Marcy Nicholson)

Hurricane Maria lashes Turks and Caicos after killing 30 people

People walk among debris on the seashore in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria lashed the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday after destroying homes, causing widespread flooding, crippling economies and killing at least 30 people on Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands.

Maria was the second major hurricane to hit the Caribbean this month and the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years. It completely knocked out the island’s power and several rivers hit record flood levels.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told CNN he had reports of at least 13 people being killed. El Nuevo Día‏ newspaper reported at least 15 people were killed.

“We have reports of complete devastation,” Rossello said, adding that the storm’s dangers were not over, as “mudslides and surges, as well as flooding continues.”

Fourteen deaths were reported on the island nation of Dominica, which has a population of about 71,000. Two people were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Communications outages throughout the region were making it difficult for officials to get a clear picture of damage.

Rossello imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew through Saturday for the island’s 3.4 million people. He said about 700 people had been rescued from floodwaters and communication was difficult with the southeastern part of the island.

Among those killed in Puerto Rico were eight people who drowned in Toa Baja, about 20 miles (32 km) west of San Juan, Mayor Bernardo Márquez told the newspaper.

Three elderly sisters were killed by a mudslide on Wednesday in the mountainous central municipality of Utuado, El Nuevo Día said, citing relatives and the mayor of Utuado.

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters the island had been “totally obliterated” and he planned to visit.

Puerto Rico was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history. A team of judges overseeing its bankruptcy has advised involved parties to put legal proceedings on hold indefinitely as the island recovers, said a source familiar with the proceedings.

Maria’s tail end was still bringing drenching rain to Puerto Rico and some parts of the island could have accumulated totals of up to 40 inches (101 cm) from the storm, the NHC said.

Utility crews from the U.S. mainland headed to Puerto Rico to help restore the power grid. The U.S. military sent ground forces and aircraft to assist with search and rescue.

STORM SURGE DANGER

By 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) Friday, Maria was 30 miles (50 km) north-northeast of Grand Turk Island, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was carrying sustained winds of up to 125 miles per hour (205 km per hour), making it a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

It was expected to bring a storm surge – ocean water pushed inland – of as much as 12 feet (3.7 m) above normal tide levels to parts of the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Maria currently looked unlikely to hit the continental United States.

It was expected to lose strength gradually in the next couple of days, and to start curving north-northwestward, the NHC said. Storm swells from Maria would reach parts of the southeastern U.S. coast from Friday, it said.

The storm caused flooding in the Dominican Republic when it passed nearby.

In Dominica, Maria damaged about 95 percent of roofs, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. It struck as a rare Category 5 storm on Monday, obliterating the island’s vital agricultural sector.

Maria passed close by the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, early on Wednesday, knocking out electricity and most mobile phone service.

“The worst is behind us,” Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp told reporters on Thursday. The government has imposed a 24-hour curfew until further notice.

About 600 people throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands were in emergency shelters and many parts were without power, Mapp said.

Maria hit about two weeks after Hurricane Irma pounded two other U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Thomas and St. John.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, killed at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the United States. It followed Harvey, which killed more than 80 people when it hit Texas in late August and caused flooding in Houston.

More than two months remain in the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, although the busiest period of storms is generally from mid-August to mid-October.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Additional reporting by Jorge Pineda in Santo Domingo, Nick Brown in Houston, Devika Krishna Kumar and Daniel Wallis in New York and Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Frances Kerry)

Storm Maria pitches Puerto Rico barrio into sunken ‘Venice’

Storm Maria pitches Puerto Rico barrio into sunken 'Venice'

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

CATANO, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Wading through highways swamped by turbid waters that sloshed over scattered, sunken belongings, residents of this Puerto Rican barrio flooded by Hurricane Maria have begun emerging from their shattered homes.

Lying southwest of the capital San Juan, the Juana Matos neighborhood in Catano municipality took a huge hit from Maria after the storm slammed winds of up to 155 mph (249 kmh) into Puerto Rico early on Wednesday, destroying or damaging an estimated 80 percent of housing in the working-class barrio.

The storm, the second Category 5 hurricane to batter the Caribbean this month, claimed at least 32 lives across the region, including 15 in Puerto Rico, and shut down power and communications across the island of 3.4 million people.

By Thursday, Maria’s floodwaters had turned the heart of the predominantly wood-built Juana Matos barrio into a series of waterways more suited to boats than walking.

“It’s like we’re in Venice,” said 69-year-old steel worker Joaquin Rebollo, looking out across a broad channel that is normally teeming with cars. “It was a really bad experience, really bad. I almost died of fright.”

Pitching the roof off his home and dozens of others in the area, Maria began to work through the wiring around the house as darkness descended across the island.

“It was like (Maria) was chewing the cables,” he said, vividly making as if to bite through power lines with his teeth.

Opposite him, residents trudged up to their knees in waters covering what was the main highway connecting Catano with the municipality of Bayamon further south.

Rebollo and many neighbors left their homes in the hope the flooding that rose to four feet in some areas would recede.

Houses locked for the storm were stripped of roofs or walls. Stranded cars stood half-sunk in driveways and satellite dishes tilted towards the sky to receive signals that had gone.

“I peeked my head out during the storm and felt the wind – and saw the wood, the roof, and the windows in the air,” said Domingo Avilez, 47, who took cover inside a small cement stock room beneath his mother’s house when Maria struck.

By the end, the stock room was the only room left.

Local officials estimate upwards of 2,000 people live in Juana Matos, and many too old or unwilling to evacuate watched from upper floors as the floodwaters turned streets into stagnant canals that seeped through their homes.

“Well, we’re alive,” said 75-year-old grandfather Angel Santos from the debris-strewn second floor of his wooden home.

“These are the works of God, so there’s nothing you can do,” Santos said, reflecting the faith evident among many Puerto Ricans hit by Maria just days after Hurricane Irma left.

Even those on the edge of the flood-prone barrio in homes high enough to avoid shipping huge quantities of water suffered brutal incursions.

Magdalena Oliveras, a 52-year-old housewife, showed the twisted metal blinds of her two-meter high washroom window she said had been mangled by a deluge from a nearby building.

Lidia Espinal, 57, a longtime Juana Matos resident from the Dominican Republic, suffered a double blow on Wednesday morning before phone lines went down with a call from her homeland to say her younger brother had suffered a fatal heart attack.

But Maria’s presence meant she could not travel back.

“I lost everything in my house, the good things, the roof, the windows. The stove is full of water,” she said. “But the death of my brother taught me that we can’t hold on to material things. Because life does not come back.”

A dog stands next to fallen trees and damaged houses after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Salinas, Puerto Rico September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

A dog stands next to fallen trees and damaged houses after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Salinas, Puerto Rico September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

(Editing by Michael Perry)

Powerful Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico

Powerful Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico

By Alvin Baez and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria roared ashore in Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in about 90 years after lashing the U.S. Virgin Islands and devastating a string of tiny Caribbean islands, killing at least one person.

Packing 155 mile per hour (250 kph) winds and driving high storm surges, Maria made landfall near Yabouca, the National Hurricane Center said. It was heading northwest, on a track directly over the island of 3.4 million people.

It struck just days after the region was punched by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, which left a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands and Florida.

“We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history,” Ricardo Rossello, governor of Puerto Rico, said in a televised message on Tuesday.

“Although it looks like a direct hit with major damage to Puerto Rico is inevitable, I ask for America’s prayers,” he said, adding the government has set up 500 shelters.

In Puerto Rico, Maria is expected to dump as much as 25 inches (63.5 cm) of rain on parts of the island, the NHC said. Storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels, could be up to 9 feet (2.74 meters).

The heavy rainfall could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, it added.

A few hours earlier, Maria passed west of St. Croix, home to about half of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ 103,000 residents, as a rare Category 5 storm the top of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

The center has hurricane warnings and watches out for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the southeastern Bahamas and the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata.

Many U.S. Virgin Islands residents fled to shelters around midday Tuesday. U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents that their lives were at risk.

“The only thing that matters is the safety of your family, and your children, and yourself. The rest of the stuff, forget it,” Mapp said.

Authorities expect to start assessing storm damage on St. Croix from daybreak.

After crossing Puerto Rico, Maria will pass just north of the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night and Thursday, the NHC said.

It was too early to know if Maria will threaten the continental United States as it moves northward in the Atlantic.

Earlier this month, Irma devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and caused heavy damage in Cuba and Florida, killing at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.

A man looks at a fallen tree as he walks along a street after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe island, France, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

A man looks at a fallen tree as he walks along a street after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe island, France, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

DIRECT HIT

Maria is set to be the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, when the San Felipe Segundo hurricane made a direct hit on the island and killed about 300 people, the National Weather Service said.

A slow weakening is expected after the hurricane emerges over the Atlantic north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the NHC added.

Puerto Rico avoided a direct hit from Irma, but the storm knocked out power for 70 percent of the island, and killed at least three people.

“This is going to be catastrophic for our island,” said Grisele Cruz, who was staying at a shelter in the southeastern city of Guayama. “We’re going to be without services for a long time.”

Puerto Rico is grappling with the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history, with both its government and the public utility having filed for bankruptcy protection amid fights with creditors.

The storm plowed into Dominica, a mountainous country of 72,000 people, late on Monday causing what Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit called “mind-boggling” destruction.

North of Dominica, the French island territory of Guadeloupe appeared to have been hit hard. The Guadeloupe prefecture said one person was killed by a falling tree and at least two people were missing in a shipwreck.

Some roofs had been ripped off, roads were blocked by fallen trees, 80,000 households were without power and there was flooding in some southern coastal areas, the prefecture said in Twitter posts.

Members of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) photograph the trajectory of Hurricane Maria in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

Members of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) photograph the trajectory of Hurricane Maria in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

(Additional reporting by Dave Graham in San Juan, Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City, Richard Lough in Paris, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Angus MacSwan and W Simon)

‘Avalanche of roofs’ in Dominica as Hurricane Maria lashes Caribbean

'Avalanche of roofs' in Dominica as Hurricane Maria lashes Caribbean

By Alvin Baez

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria caused “mind boggling damage,” ripping off roofs across the small island of Dominica before pushing on toward the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Tuesday as the second top-strength storm to lash the Caribbean this month.

Maria regained rare Category 5 strength, the top end of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, as it churned about 170 miles (275 km) southeast of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. forecasters said.

It was carrying maximum sustained winds of 160 miles per hour (260 km per hour), the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said, describing Maria as “potentially catastrophic.”

The storm plowed through Dominica, a mountainous island nation of 72,000 people in the eastern Caribbean, late on Monday causing devastation that Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit described as “mind boggling.”

“The winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” Skerrit said in a Facebook post, describing an avalanche of torn-away roofs across the country, including that of his own residence.

“My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured,” he said.

The storm made landfall on Dominica as a Category 5 hurricane with 155-mph (250-kph) winds, the NHC said. Its intensity may fluctuate over the next day or two, but Maria is expected to remain a category 4 or 5 storm, the Miami-based center said.

The region was hit just days ago by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record and devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John, and causing heavy damage in Cuba and Florida. Irma killed at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.

Maria was on track to move over the northeastern Caribbean Sea and approach the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by Tuesday night or early on Wednesday.

The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Kenneth Mapp, said Maria would pass within 10 miles (16 km) of the island of St. Croix, which escaped the brunt of Irma on Sept. 6. The island is home to about 55,000 year-round residents, roughly half of the entire territory’s population.

At a news conference on Monday evening, Mapp warned of drenching rains. He predicted that most islanders would be without electricity for weeks, and “some folks will not get power in months.” A curfew would be imposed starting at 10 a.m. local time on Tuesday, he said.

A man covers the windows of a supermarket in preparation for Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

A man covers the windows of a supermarket in preparation for Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

SHELTER IN A BATHTUB

Mapp urged St. Croix residents to take cover in one of three emergency shelters on the island. For those choosing to stay in their homes during the storm, he said, they might consider climbing into a second-floor bathtub and pulling a mattress over them to stay safe in the event they lose their roofs.

Forecasts predict Maria will be the worst storm to hit St. Croix since Hugo, a Category 4 storm, in 1989.

The territory’s two other main islands, St. Thomas and St. John, which lie to the north of St. Croix, sustained widespread and heavy damage from Irma.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory with about 3.4 million inhabitants, avoided a direct hit two weeks ago from Irma as that storm skirted north, although it still saw damage.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, urged residents on Twitter to brace for Maria’s arrival, saying, “It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend or head to a state shelter.”

Residents rushed to buy plywood, water and other supplies.

If Maria retains its strength, it would be the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years, since a Category 4 storm swept the territory in 1932, Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. The last major hurricane to strike Puerto Rico directly was Georges, which made landfall there as a Category 3 storm in 1998, he said.

FRENCH TERRITORIES

The French island of Martinique escaped Maria largely unscathed but a communications blackout with fellow French territory Guadeloupe meant it would be several more hours before damage there could be assessed, Jacques Witkowski, France’s head of civil protection, told reporters in Paris.

In Saint Martin, where nearly a third of all buildings on the Dutch half of the island were destroyed by Irma, the airport and harbor were closed ahead of Maria’s approach.

“Saint Martin is the big concern because a lot of homes lost their roofs. They are vulnerable to a lot of rain, which will only make the situation worse,” said Paul Middelberg, a spokesman for the Dutch navy.

Maria was expected to whip up storm surges – seawater driven ashore by wind – of up to 9 feet (2.7 m) above normal tide levels, the NHC said. Parts of Puerto Rico could see up to 25 inches (64 cm) of rain, it said.

Maria is the 13th named Atlantic storm of the year, the seventh hurricane so far this season and the fourth major hurricane – defined as Category 3 or higher – following Harvey, Irma and Jose, the NHC said. Those numbers are all above average for a typical season, which is only about half over for 2017.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Paris, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Robert Edison Sandiford in Bridgetown, Barbados; Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Catherine Evans and Frances Kerry)

Shocked residents return to Irma-ravaged Florida Keys

Shocked residents return to Irma-ravaged Florida Keys

By Andy Sullivan

ISLAMORADA, Fla. (Reuters) – Evacuees from Hurricane Irma were early on Wednesday returning to the Florida Keys, where sunrise will give them a first glimpse of devastation that has left countless homes and businesses in ruins.

Categorized as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, Irma claimed more than 60 lives, officials said.

At least 18 people died in Florida and destruction was widespread in the Keys, where Irma made initial U.S. landfall on Sunday to become the second major hurricane to strike the mainland this season.

A resort island chain that stretches from the tip of the state into the Gulf of Mexico, the Keys are connected by a bridges and causeways along a narrow route of nearly 100 miles (160 km).

“I don’t have a house. I don’t have a job. I have nothing,” said Mercedes Lopez, 50, whose family fled north from the Keys town of Marathon on Friday and rode out the storm at an Orlando hotel, only to learn their home was destroyed, along with the gasoline station where she worked.

“We came here, leaving everything at home, and we go back to nothing,” Lopez said. Four families from Marathon including hers planned to venture back on Wednesday to salvage what they can.

The Keys had been largely evacuated by the time Irma barreled ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph (215 km/hour).

Initial damage assessments found 25 percent of homes there were destroyed and 65 percent suffered major damage, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said.

A boy walks amongst debris on the beach after Hurricane Irma passed the area in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

A boy walks amongst debris on the beach after Hurricane Irma passed the area in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

‘SAILBOAT IN OUR BACKYARD’

Authorities allowed re-entry to the islands of Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada for residents and business owners on Tuesday. The extent of the devastation took many of the first returnees by surprise.

“I expected some fence lines to be down and some debris,” said Orlando Morejon, 51, a trauma surgeon from Miami as he hacked away at a tree blocking his Islamorada driveway. “We were not expecting to find someone else’s sailboat in our backyard.”

A boil water notice was in effect for the Keys late on Tuesday, while its airports remained closed to commercial flights.

Several major airports in Florida that had halted passenger operations resumed with limited service on Tuesday, including Miami International, one of the busiest in the United States.

All 42 bridges in Monroe County, which includes the Keys, were deemed safe and one of two washed out sections of U.S. 1 Roadway was now navigable, the county said on its Twitter account.

At the end of Islamorada, roughly the halfway point of the Keys, police at a checkpoint turned around returning residents seeking to travel farther south and waved through utility crews, law enforcement and healthcare workers.

Authorities said they were barring re-entry to the remainder of the Keys to allow more time to restore electricity, water, fuel and medical service. U.S. officials have said some 10,000 Keys residents stayed put when the storm hit and may ultimately need to be evacuated.

Across Florida and nearby states, some 5.8 million homes and businesses were late on Tuesday estimated to be still without power, down from a peak of 7.4 million on Monday.

Florida’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light Co [NEEPWR.UL], said western parts of Florida might be without electricity until Sept. 22.

A man cheers just as power is restored to his house after Hurricane Irma struck the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A man cheers just as power is restored to his house after Hurricane Irma struck the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The state’s largest city, Jacksonville, in its northeastern corner, was still recovering from heavy flooding on Wednesday.

While damage across Florida was severe, it paled in comparison with devastation wrought by Irma in parts of the Caribbean, which accounted for the bulk of the hurricane’s fatalities.

It destroyed about one-third of the buildings on the Dutch-governed portion of the eastern Caribbean island of St. Martin, the Dutch Red Cross said on Tuesday.

Irma was a post-tropical cyclone late on Tuesday as it drifted north as it brought rain to the Mississippi Valley, the National Hurricane Center said.

It hit the United States soon after Hurricane Harvey, which plowed into Houston late last month, killing about 60 and causing some $180 billion in damage, mostly from flooding.

Pastor Louicesse Dorsaint stands with his wife Maria Dorsaint in front of their church, Haitian United Evangelical Mission, which was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Irma in Immokalee, Florida, U.S. September 12, 2017 REUTERS/Stephen Yang

Pastor Louicesse Dorsaint stands with his wife Maria Dorsaint in front of their church, Haitian United Evangelical Mission, which was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Irma in Immokalee, Florida, U.S. September 12, 2017 REUTERS/Stephen Yang

(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Orlando, Florida; Bernie Woodall, Ben Gruber and Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Letitia Stein in Detroit; Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Harriet McLeod in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; and Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Scott DiSavino in New York; editing by John Stonestreet)

Officials urge patience as Florida towns re-open after Irma

Officials urge patience as Florida towns re-open after Irma

By Andy Sullivan and Robin Respaut

FLORIDA CITY/MARCO ISLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – Florida began allowing some residents to return to their homes hammered by Hurricane Irma on Tuesday, but officials warned that it would take a long time to repair the damage wrought by high winds and pounding surf, particularly in the Keys archipelago.

Irma, which had rampaged through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, was downgraded to a tropical depression on Monday. It will likely dissipate from Tuesday evening, the National Hurricane Center said.

At its peak it prompted the evacuation of 6.5 million people, the largest evacuation in modern U.S. history.

Local authorities told around 90,000 residents of Miami Beach and from some parts of the Florida Keys they could go home but warned it may be prudent not to remain there.

“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,” Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told a morning press conference.

He noted that FEMA was continuing to rescue people stranded by flooding around Jacksonville, in the state’s northeast.

After leaving a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands, killing nearly 40 people, Irma caused record flooding in parts of Florida. Only one Florida fatality has been confirmed so far, but a local official said there had been more deaths.

Irma became the second major hurricane to make landfall in the United States in a little more than two weeks when it roared ashore on Key Cudjoe as a powerful Category 4 storm on Sunday. It followed Hurricane Harvey, which plowed into Houston late last month, killing about 60 and wreaking some $180 billion in damage, largely through flooding.

About 2-1/2 months remain in the official Atlantic hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center is monitoring another hurricane, Jose, which is spinning in the Caribbean, currently about 700 miles (1,130 km) from the mainland.

MILITARY AID

The U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln has arrived off Florida’s east coast and two amphibious assault ships will arrive on Tuesday to help in the Keys. The military will distribute food and help evacuate 10,000 residents who did not leave before the storm.

Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said Monday that people had been killed in the Keys, where nearly 80,000 permanent residents live, apart from one already known fatality. She did not have a count on how many.

“We are finding some remains,” she said in an interview with CNN. Video footage of the islands showed homes torn apart by sustained winds of up to 130 mph (210 kph).

Several major airports in Florida that halted passenger operations due to Irma began limited service on Tuesday, including Miami International, one of the busiest U.S. airports.

The scope of damage in Florida and neighboring states paled in comparison with the devastation left by Irma in parts of the Caribbean, where it razed islands and killed nearly 40.

RECORD FLOODS

The center of Irma moved into Alabama on Tuesday and will head into western Tennessee by Tuesday evening with maximum sustained winds of 25 mph.

In South Carolina, the Charleston Harbor area saw major flooding on Monday with water about 3 feet (1 meter) above flood stage and minor flooding is forecast for Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

Miami Beach will allow residents to return home from 8 a.m. (1200 GMT), its mayor said. More evacuation orders are likely to be lifted on Tuesday.

Monroe County opened road access on Tuesday morning for residents and business owners from Key Largo, the main island at the upper end of the chain, as well as the towns of Tavernier and Islamorada farther to the south, fire officials said.

No timetable was given for reopening the remainder of the Keys.

MOST OF FLORIDA WITHOUT ELECTRICITY

Insured property losses in Florida from Irma are expected to run from $20 billion to $40 billion, catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimated.

Utilities reported some 7.4 million homes and businesses were without electricity in Florida and neighboring states and said it could take weeks to fully restore service.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 utility workers from out of state, sent to inspect and repair power lines, were staying in Broward County in cramped conditions at BB&T Center, home to the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers, said Gus Beyersdorf, 40, of De Pere, Wisconsin.

“Each one of us has a cot, a single foot apart,” Beyersdorf said on Monday afternoon. “I slept in the truck last night just to get a break from it.”

At least one other possibly storm-related fatal car crash was reported on Sunday in Orange County, Florida. On Monday, two people were killed by falling trees in two Atlanta suburbs, according to local authorities.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Orlando, Fla., Bernie Woodall, Ben Gruber and Zachary Fagenson in Miami, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Letitia Stein in Detroit, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C., Harriet McLeod in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., Scott DiSavino in New York and Marc Frank in Havana; Writing by Scott Malone and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Chizu Nomiyama)

Battered by cyclone, Philippines suffers flooding, landslides

Battered by cyclone, Philippines suffers flooding, landslides

MANILA (Reuters) – A cyclone dumped heavy rains in the Philippine capital, Manila, and nearby provinces on Tuesday, causing widespread flooding and landslides in some areas that killed at least two people, the national disaster agency said.

Financial markets, government offices and schools were closed and port operations in some provinces were suspended, it said. Several flights were canceled.

The weather bureau said cyclone Maring, which was packing winds of up to 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph), made landfall in the morning over Mauban municipality in the eastern province of Quezon.

Romina Marasigan, a spokeswoman for the national disaster agency, said two teenaged brothers died from a landslide in Taytay, Rizal, 20 kilometers (12.43 miles) from Manila.

“Some residents unfortunately did not heed the advice of local officials to evacuate to safer grounds,” she said in a media briefing.

Marasigan warned of more flashfloods and landslides as rains were expected to continue later in the day, before the cyclone moves back over the sea early on Wednesday.

Twenty-two passengers were rescued from a bus stuck in floodwaters in Pitogo town in Quezon, she said.

Local officials ordered the evacuation of residents in some towns under floodwaters in Quezon, Laguna, Rizal and Batangas provinces, she said.

The weather bureau said it was also keeping an eye on typhoon Talim which was packing winds of up to 120 kph (75 mph), spotted moving toward the country’s northern tip and to Taiwan.

(Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz and Dondi Tawatao; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Florida braces for Hurricane Irma as storm rips through Cuba

Hurricane Irma downgraded as it tears into Cuba's northern coast

By Sarah Marsh

REMEDIOS, Cuba (Reuters) – Hurricane Irma pounded Cuba’s northern coast on Saturday and barreled toward Florida as authorities scrambled to complete an unprecedented evacuation of millions of residents hours before the storm would engulf the state.

The outer band of Irma, which has killed at least 22 people in the Caribbean, was already lashing South Florida with tropical storm-force winds and left nearly 25,000 people without power, Governor Rick Scott said.

The brunt of the hurricane, one of the fiercest Atlantic storms in a century, is due to arrive in Florida early Sunday.

Irma could inflict major damage on the fourth-largest U.S. state by population, which is braced for winds well in excess of 100 miles per hour and a huge storm surge that could trigger coastal flooding.

“This is a deadly storm and our state has never seen anything like it,” Scott said at a Saturday morning news conference.

Irma, located about 225 miles (365 km) south of Miami on Saturday morning, still ranked as a Category 5 storm when it crashed into Cuba in the early hours of Saturday. It weakened to a Category 3 as it tore along the island’s northern coastline, downing power lines, bending palm trees and sending huge waves crashing over sea walls.

Maximum sustained winds dipped to around 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour) by 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) on Saturday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

But Irma will regain strength as it moves over the warm open water as it approaches Florida, according to the NHS, which expects the storm to arrive in the Keys, an archipelago off the peninsula’s southern tip, on Sunday morning.

On Florida’s West Coast, a long line of people in Estero, north of Naples, lined up to enter an arena that officials converted into an evacuation shelter, one of hundreds that have opened up across the state.

“We got the house all buttoned up,” said Montgomery Campbell, 82, as he stood in line.

Luise Campana Read was one of those who chose to ignore warnings and stay in her home. She said by phone she planned to ride out the storm in her beachfront condo in Fort Lauderdale, with her elderly mother and other family members.

“With a 97-year-old, there was no way I was going to have her sleep on a cot or a blow-up mattress” in a shelter, she said.

The destruction along Cuba’s north central coast was similar to that seen on other Caribbean islands over the last week as Irma plowed into Ciego de Avila province around midnight.

State media said it was the first time the eye of a Category 5 storm had made landfall since 1932. In the days before Irma struck, the island’s Communist government evacuated tens of thousands of foreign tourists from resorts on the northern coast.

In Ciego de Avila province, Irma was forecast to generate waves of up to 7 meters (23 feet), with flooding expected as far west as the capital Havana, authorities said on Saturday.

Antonia Navarro, 56, a resident of the northern Cuban port town of Nuevitas in Camaguey, said a local ice cream factory was destroyed and glass windows at a hospital were blown out.

“We are praying to God and the Virgin of Charity that nothing grave happens to the people of Florida, and in particular Miami,” said Navarro, an officer worker. “We have to pray a lot for our relatives who live there.”

“RUNNING OUT OF TIME”

With the storm barreling toward the United States, officials in Florida raced to overcome clogged highways, gasoline shortages and move elderly residents to safety.

A total of 5.6 million people, or 25 percent of the state’s population, were ordered to evacuate Florida, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

The United States has been hit by only three Category 5 storms since 1851, and Irma is far larger than the last one in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

On Wall Street, the S&P 500 ended slightly lower as investors braced for potential damage and massive insurance claims from Irma. Many economists are predicting that third-quarter gross domestic product will take a hit due to the hurricanes.

President Donald Trump said in a videotaped statement that Irma was “a storm of absolutely historic destructive potential” and called on people to heed recommendations from government officials and law enforcement. In Palm Beach, Trump’s waterfront Mar-a-Lago estate was ordered evacuated.

Trees sway in the wind at the main square as Hurricane Irma passes by Remedios, Cuba September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

MANDATORY EVACUATIONS, GASOLINE SHORTAGES

Irma was set to hit the United States two weeks after Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, struck Texas, killing about 60 people and causing property damage estimated at up to $180 billion in Texas and Louisiana. Officials were preparing a massive response, the head of FEMA said.

About 9 million people in Florida may lose power, some for weeks, said Florida Power & Light Co, which serves almost half of the state’s 20.6 million residents.

Amid the exodus, nearly one-third of all gas stations in Florida’s metropolitan areas were out of gasoline, with scattered outages in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, according to Gasbuddy.com, a retail fuel price tracking service.

Mandatory evacuations on Georgia’s Atlantic coast and some of South Carolina’s barrier islands were due to begin on Saturday. Virginia and Alabama were under states of emergency.

The governors of North and South Carolina warned residents to remain on guard even as the storm took a more westward track, saying their states still could experience severe weather, including heavy rain and flash flooding, early next week.

As it roared in from the east, Irma ravaged small islands in the northeastern Caribbean, including Barbuda, St. Martin and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, flattening homes and hospitals and ripping down trees.

Irma is seen costing at least 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, a French public reinsurance body said on Saturday.

But even as they came to grips with the destruction, residents of the islands faced the threat of another major storm, Hurricane Jose.

Jose, expected to reach the northeastern Caribbean on Saturday, is an extremely dangerous storm nearing Category 5 status, with winds of up to 150 mph (240 kph), the NHC said.

(For a graphic on how Irma compares to other major hurricanes, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2gTxfqJ)

(Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana, Makini Brice in Cap-Haitien, Haiti,; Delana Isles in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, Bernie Woodall, Robin Respaut and Brian Thevenot in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Ben Gruber and Andy Sullivan in Miami, Bate Felix, Richard Lough and Dominique Vidalon in Paris, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Neil Hartnell in Nassau, Bahamas; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Helen Popper, Dale Hudson and Diane Craft)

Hurricane Irma will ‘devastate’ part of U.S.: emergency services head

A member of the Emergency Operations Committee monitors the trajectory of Irma in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Anticipating that Hurricane Irma will “devastate” part of the United States, U.S. officials were preparing a massive response to the storm, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said on Friday.

With Irma set to hit Florida as early as Saturday night, parts of Florida was expected to lose electricity for days, if not longer, and more than 100,000 people may need shelter, FEMA Administrator Brock Long warned at a news conference.

“Hurricane Irma continues to be a threat that is going to devastate the United States in either Florida or some of the southeastern states,” Long said.

Irma was a Category 5 hurricane, the most dangerous measure by the National Hurricane Center, before being downgraded to Category 4 early Friday after pummeling islands in the Caribbean.

The United States has experienced only three Category 5 storms since 1851 and Irma is far larger than the last one to hit the United States in 1992, Hurricane Andrew, according to Long.

He warned people not to ignore evacuation orders.

“They need to get out and listen and heed the warnings,” Long said.

A man looks out to the flooded street in Puerto Plata.

A man looks out to the flooded street in Puerto Plata.
REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Officials have thousands of personnel ready to respond and millions of meals and liters of water in place nearby, Long said.

The National Weather Service said that Friday was the last day to evacuate before winds would start to reach unsafe speeds in Florida.

Airlines added extra flights from Florida on Thursday before announcing plans to halt service from some southern Florida airports starting Friday afternoon.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price called Irma a “remarkably dangerous storm and the window to get yourself in the right spot … is closing rapidly.”

Price said the main hospital in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands was closed after being damaged by Irma, and critically ill patients were being evacuated to Puerto Rico or other islands.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 80-17 to approve a measure to more than double funding to $15.25 billion to FEMA and for local block grants to handle natural disasters. FEMA’s disaster assistance fund could run out of money Friday without action, senators said.

The House is expected to approve the measure on Friday. It had already approved $7.85 billion on Wednesday.

A worker covers the windows of a restaurant with plywood in preparation for Hurricane Irma in Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

A worker covers the windows of a restaurant with plywood in preparation for Hurricane Irma in Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

(Editing by Bill Trott and Jeffrey Benkoe)