Long before the wind stopped blowing or the rain stopped falling, the South Florida night was already ringing with a mighty song: When can we go home?!! And the answer, mostly, is not yet.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled Hurricane Irma for shelters, hotels or the homes of friends were already itching to return to their own beds Sunday evening. So were uncounted thousands of tourists, marooned here when flights or cruises were canceled.
But authorities warned that getting back to even a semblance of the way we were is going to take time. With roads blocked by uprooted trees, downed electrical cables hissing like snakes in the grass, and more than a few city streets resembling flash-flooding rivers, much of South Florida was simply not negotiable as the weekend storm subsided.
And sometimes the warnings carried the force of law. Miami Beach and Monroe County officials said they’re flat-out banning the return of evacuees until police and public-works crews deem conditions safe.
“Access to Miami Beach will be prohibited until all the roads are clear,” announced Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine. That won’t be until noon Tuesday, city officials said, when they expect to be finished clearing up gas leaks, felled trees, snapped power lines and awesome quantities of debris littered everywhere.
Keys residents will face an even more elaborate system for gaining access to the islands. “Monroe County is closed,” a county communique said, “until further notice.” When county officials decide to reopen, evacuees can return only with official re-entry stickers — one per registered vehicle — attached to their windshields.
And they’ll first have to drive to the Homestead Race Track parking lot, to be released to drive into the Florida Keys in a carefully regulated traffic flow.
Other jurisdictions aren’t quite so strict, but the practical obstacles to returning will be intimidating in many cases. Xavier Suarez, the Miami-Dade commissioner whose district includes Coconut Grove, said he barely recognized the stretch of South Bayshore Drive near Mercy Hospital.
“It looks like the end of the world right there,” he said. “It’s totally blocked by a jungle. It doesn’t look like a tree fell there. It looks like a tree just grew there.”
Miami-Dade County plans to get its road-clearing crews out Monday morning. First, and easiest, priority: clearing debris. Once that’s done, utility crews can enter to start restoring power.
Luis Espinoza, spokesman for Miami-Dade’s Public Works department, said that the agency would be deploying dozens of people to clear the patchwork barriers of storm debris that have left an unknown — but large — number of roads and streets impassable.
How quickly yours gets cleared depends on how far away you live from major thoroughfares or important destinations, like hospitals. Espinoza said: “Initial cleanup efforts will be on major roads, and then access roads to critical facilities.”
Even when roads are cleared to their homes, though, a lot of residents may find their lives there fraught with difficulty. Essential services are iffy through much of Miami-Dade and Broward.
More than 75 percent of Miami-Dade was without electricity Sunday night, reducing Florida to its primitive pre-air-conditioning past. In Broward, residents of Davie and Hollywood and parts of Hallandale Beach, Pembroke Pines, Miramar, West Park and Dania Beach were under warnings to drink and cook only with boiled water. In Hialeah, the lack of power at a sewage pumping station has officials warning residents not to flush their toilets.
And never underestimate the malevolent temperament of hammers, ladders and other tools of the hurricane-preparation trade, which often take advantage of storm-induced weariness and discombobulation to wreak revenge upon their human masters.
“More people are injured pre-storm putting up shutters and post-storm when they start assessing their properties than during the storm,” said Coral Gables City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark, who urged the city’s residents to be patient as they put their homes back together.
For unwary tourists who booked Florida vacations at the height of hurricane season and found themselves trapped as airlines began canceling flights last week, the outlook was even less clear. “Way too soon to know about resumption of operations,” Miami International Airport officials tweeted on Sunday afternoon as Irma raged on. “Storm still upon us. Info as available.”
But even when airports are operational, it may take airlines time to get planes and crews to South Florida to start flying again. Some travel-industry observers were fretting Sunday that a slow resumption of service could start toppling dominoes at other airports like Atlanta as early as Monday.
MIA spokesman Greg Chin said that about 40 passengers remained stranded during the storm at the airport, which sustained minor water damage over the weekend. Airport workers still have to fully assess what repairs will be needed.
The airport plans to accept only flights with crew members and staff aboard Monday, to prepare for a limited number of flights out Tuesday. It’s not clear that Tuesday is when the stranded passengers will be able to leave: It’s up to carriers to decide which destinations they fly to first.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport spokesman Greg Meyer said Sunday evening the airport still doesn’t have a time set for when it’ll reopen, citing high winds there that precluded workers from assessing the damage to the airport and airfield. Meyer said he expects airport employees will be able to begin assessing the condition of the airport sometime early Monday. The airport had to arrange shelter for 54 stranded passengers with nowhere to go.
Miami Herald staff writers Lance Dixon, Joey Flechas, Elizabeth Koh and David J. Neal helped report this story.