Gov. Rick Scott toured the Florida Keys on Wednesday as the extent of the devastation from Hurricane Irma became clearer, with the death toll in the island chain rising to at least eight since Irma hit.
The governor surveyed the damage for the first time on foot, flying into Marathon via helicopter and then stopping at hard-hit Big Pine and Cudjoe Keys before departing from Key West.
None of the dead have been found by search-and-rescue teams, which have been going door-to-door. Monroe County authorities say six deaths have been caused by natural causes and two others directly by the Category 4 storm. Another 40 have been injured, 30 of them in Key West.
Keys officials told the governor the biggest needs are help in getting food, fuel and communications.
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In Marathon, Scott dropped in at the Monroe County Emergency Operations Center, where Manager Marty Senterfitt warned him that the county will likely need the federal disaster declaration extended once it expires in 30 days.
“Let me please emphasize the incredible job you and the president have done,” Senterfitt said. “I feel almost embarrassed to be asking for more.”
Scott said he expects Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long and Florida Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon to visit soon.
“You’ve got to be very specific” in your requests from the federal government, Scott said.
“Fuel, food, water, communications,” said state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo.
“It doesn’t ever seem fast enough when you’re the victim,” Senterfitt said.
When Scott asked about the progress to restore water service to Keys residents, Senterfitt said there are still too many leaks in the system. As for cellphone service, “AT&T, they used the word ‘shredded’ when they talked about their system right now,” Senterfitt said. But, he added, “they’re making heroic strides on electricity.”
Asked what he was most disappointed about, Scott noted that not everyone had heeded mandatory evacuation orders.
“I wanted everyone to evacuate,” he said.
Scott, in a beige Humvee, drove past Bahia Honda, where an entire oceanside road was wiped out, and stopped on Avenue A in Big Pine Key, one of the widest islands where people who live in trailers suffered severe damage.
“Where you’re walking around was waist deep when we got here,” a Florida Fish and Wildlife officer told the governor.
As Scott walked down the street, 82-year-old Marion “Mike” Becker stepped around her trailer, which remained boarded up. An overturned table and other debris had washed up against it.
“You’re our governor?” Becker asked Scott after he hugged her. “I thought so, but I wasn’t sure.”
Becker, a 43-year Keys resident, spent the storm at a friend’s house but returned soon after. Earlier Wednesday, she said she picked up free water, peanut butter and bread at the local Winn-Dixie.
“Oh, the destruction,” she said. “I’m grateful. I don’t have that much to worry about. If I had some water, I could clean up with a hose.”
A couple of blocks away, Scott heard the hum of a generator and climbed over a mound of debris to reach Ira Kawsinzky, 32.
“We’re good,” said Kawsinzky, a cigarette in hand, welcoming Scott.
“Wow!” said his friend, 61-year-old Art Koltunak, who told Scott he knew Irma was serious when the governor flew to Marathon to warn residents to get out. “All riiiight! Last time I saw you, you said, all right, it’s coming.”
Nevertheless, Koltunak stayed.
“Where was I gonna go?” he asked. “I know: You were kind of looking at us like we were all idiots.”
Koltunak said he lost his trailer home, which he said wasn’t fully built. His ’72 El Camino lost its windshield but was spared the storm surge because it was raised on a car hauler, which made Koltunak happy.
By staying put, the men said, they could immediately start clearing their property.
“We got a jump on it,” Kawsinzky said.
The men said they were pleased to get a visit from the governor, a likely U.S. Senate candidate in 2018.
“This has changed things,” Koltunak said in front of Scott, who turned away and almost blushed. “You go with the good. He paid more attention to anybody down there. This guy was really serious.”
“Thanks for cheering us on!” Kawsinzky said.
As the cleanup continues, the county will continue to limit reentry to residents and business owners up to Mile Marker 73 in the Upper Keys. Police officers from other counties are patrolling that area so Monroe can focus on the Middle Keys, which took the brunt of Irma’s force.
Most of the Keys remain without cellphone or internet service, which has made it nearly impossible for loved ones to reach people who stayed on the islands during the storm. About 7 percent of customers for Keys Energy Services, which supplies power to the Lower Keys, have power, including the Monroe County Assisted Living Facility, whose generator had failed, the county said.
Key West streets should be clear by the end of Wednesday, according to the city, with debris collection to begin soon. The Florida Department of Transportation will soon start collecting debris along U.S. 1, where trees, boats, sheets of metal and other trash have piled up for days.