Hurricane Irma feinted right and bobbed left, finally dealing fear-stricken South Florida a potent and prolonged beating at a tropical-storm strength that felt like much more, and leaving behind a colossal mess of downed trees, widspread power outages and curfews.
Government and power-company executives warned Monday that cleanup and recovery, and the general pain and discomfort to be endured by many Miami-Dade and Broward residents, is bound to last for days, even weeks.
A thick carpet of sand from surging seas covered Ocean Drive on South Beach and A-1-A in Sunny Isles Beach. Both were closed off to visitors and residents, as was Key Biscayne, though set to reopen Tuesday morning. But public schools in both counties are closed indefinitely. Miami International Airport suffered significant water intrusion and remained closed, along with Fort Lauderdale’s airport, though both were expected to reopen Tuesday with limited service. Miami’s Jungle Island attraction suffered “major devastation” and also closed indefinitely, though its animals were safe and sound. Across the region, damage assessments were only in the early stages, but could reach a dollar-value record.
But there was also an overriding sense of relief at a thought no sensible South Floridian can deny: It easily could have been a lot worse.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, fresh off surveying Irma’s damage from a U.S. Coast Guard HC 144 Ocean Sentry aircraft that flew from Naples south along Florida’s Gulf Coast to Key West and then back north to Opa-locka, said he saw homes without roofs, downed trees and power lines and sand in the road from storm surge.
But, outside of the hard-hit Florida Keys, it wasn’t quite as bad as he had feared.
“I thought we would see more damage,” Scott said. “It’s not as bad as what we thought the storm surge was supposed to do.”
That’s not to say there was not some real physical damage in places in Miami-Dade or Broward, though those instances seemed to be isolated, nor some real desperation — especially among frustrated, anxious Keys residents waiting vainly in the heat on U.S. 1 in South Miami-Dade to be allowed back in by the Florida Highway Patrol. Some hadn’t heard from friends and relatives who had stayed behind on the islands. (Residents and business owners from the Upper Keys — including Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada — will be allowed to return beginning at 7 a.m. Tuesday, according to a Monroe County Facebook post).
But one Miami-Dade resident just back from Bonita Springs, just north of Naples, said what Irma wrought there makes the impact at home seem light by comparison. Irma, which struck the Florida mainland as a Category 3 storm after making landfall in the Keys as a Cat 4, was at one point late last week forecast to bring that terrifying fury on a beeline to far more densely populated South Florida instead.
Lesley Lanza wound up at a Bonita motel after leaving her North Beach apartment in response to evacuation orders last week. But she said what she saw there was devastating — flooding, roofs gone and trees down and broken glass everywhere.
“I think we would have been better off staying,” she said after getting back to Miami-Dade, where she was trying to cross the 79th Street Causeway on foot after being told she could not drive home.
Still, Irma did leave a catalogue of damage in Miami-Dade.
The roof of a building in Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood peeled off. So did the roof of the Keys Gate charter school in Homestead. Three construction cranes, two in Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale, crumpled. At the Miami Marlins’ stadium in Little Havana, Irma’s winds peeled the facing off a portion of the retractable sliding roof.
Across Miami-Dade, though, much of the storm’s fury appeared concentrated not on concrete, but on green.
Across Coral Gables, residential neighborhoods saw dense tree canopies trashed even as most homes seemed largely unscathed. But countless large specimen trees that had survived previous storms were toppled over in yards, swales and across streets, often blocking in residents.
The scenic tree canopy was also shredded at the quaint, historic shopping village of Cauley Square in South Miami-Dade, though the collection of century-old cottages that make it up were largely intact.
Meanwhile, along the picturesque Coconut Grove waterfront, sailboats were sent to the bottom at Dinner Key Marina, their masts jutting skyward from the sea. Luxury fishing yachts were tossed onto piers or half-submerged next to Monty Trainer’s restaurant. Biscayne Bay washed up on Brickell Avenue, downtown Miami and over much of North Bay Village. In Broward, which appears to have suffered less damage than Miami-Dade, water-main breaks prompted boil-water orders in Pembroke Pines and Hollywood, among other places.
While Broward lifted a countywide curfew at 10 a.m. Monday, a 7 a.m.-to-7 p.m. curfew remained in place across Miami-Dade. Several municipalities were also shut off to allow crews to clear streets and inspect bridges and causeways to ensure they’re safe for vehicular traffic.
That included Miami Beach, where some 90 percent of traffic signals were out. The causeways to the Beach were scheduled to open at 8 a.m. Tuesday. There was no access to Key Biscayne, which sits at the end of the Rickenbacker Causeway, until further notice.
For some evacuees, that left no good options.
Ronald Rodriguez said he might end up pitching a tent on the 79th Street Causeway for him and his wife, mother and infant son after being told he can’t go home to South Beach yet. The family spent four days at a shelter at South Miami High School, but left Monday after being told it would be closing.
With nowhere to go, the family — including 8-month-old Antony — spread out a blanket in a parking lot near the water next to Shuckers Waterfront Grill and enjoyed the breeze.
“We are homeless for the night,” Rodriguez said. “I am a Boy Scout so I don’t mind sleeping outside, but my wife isn’t too happy.”
But for most South Floridians, the highest degree of misery, and the most pressing concern, was associated with electrical power, or the lack of it — and the discouraging prospect of a long wait to get it back.
By Monday afternoon, Florida Power and Light had restored power to 200,000 customers in Miami-Dade. But that left 800,000 more to go, said FPL spokeswoman Florencia Contesse. In Broward County, electricity had been restored to 168,000 customers, but another 630,000 were still in the dark, Contesse said.
Efforts to restore power started even while the storm was battering South Florida, with workers venturing out between bands of weather, Contesse said. Some Miamians could have electricity back in a matter of days. But others might have to wait weeks, she said.
“We’re continuing to assess the damage,” Contesse said. “This was a pretty severe hurricane for us.”
In Homestead, where most residents get power from a city utility, about 90 percent of the city was without electricity as officials prioritized re-powering Homestead Hospital, police stations, nursing homes and elderly facilities.
Though there were two confirmed fatalities in Florida directly attributed to Irma, neither was in Miami-Dade or Broward. That toll, however, is expected to rise once officials further assess damage in the Keys and other hard-hit areas.
Some areas of Miami-Dade seemed to have gotten off lightly. In the Homestead area, most mobile parks — usually among the first victims in high winds — somehow were spared, according to the city.
Betty Alexander, who waited out the storm in the Goldcoaster mobile home park near Florida City, said her home “is a champ” and that the park experienced minimal damage.
Some restaurants, stores and supermarkets were beginning to reopen Monday across Miami-Dade. But with most still closed Monday evening, more than 50 people waited in line at Bay Supermarket in North Beach.
Marco Hildago rode his bicycle to the neighborhood store and waited in line for two hours for cold beer and wine, hot commodities to celebrate what, thankfully, did not happen.
“Thank God Irma didn’t come,” he said, speaking for many in South Florida. “It would have erased us off the map.”