Florida Staggers From Rescue Operations Toward Recovery

PALM BEACH (CN) — The White House said Tuesday that President Donald Trump will visit hurricane-stricken Florida on Thursday, but said the details of the trip are still to be determined.

About 10 million people — half of Florida’s population — remained without electricity Tuesday, two days after Hurricane Irma roared across the length of the state. Seven deaths in the state have been blamed on Irma.

Trump visited Texas and Louisiana after Hurricane Harvey struck both states in late August.

On Tuesday afternoon, the president signed a measure increasing the Department of Health and Human Services annual cap on aid for people displaced by natural disasters. The measure increases the cap from $1 million to $25 million for fiscal years 2017 and 2018.

Meanwhile, the remnants of Hurricane Irma forced the cancellation of nearly 200 flights at the world’s busiest passenger airport on Tuesday and is blamed for three deaths in South Carolina and two in Georgia.

Tuesday’s cancellations brought to 1,300 the number of trips interrupted at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The airport remained operational as heavy rain and strong winds periodically swept through the region, with flights taking off and landing.

But some passengers were forced to spend the night at the airport, according to spokesman Andrew Gobeil.

The weakening, but still fierce storm slammed into Georgia and South Carolina Monday after causing catastrophic damage in Florida. A number of tornados were reported as a storm surge 6 feet above normal and coinciding with high tide, inundated Charleston, South Carolina and several barrier islands on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts.

On Wednesday, as coastal residents returned home from evacuations and joined their neighbors in assessing the damage, the tropical storm continued to wreak havoc in northwestern South Carolina and northern Georgia.

So far, three people are known to have been killed by Irma in South Carolina. The first recorded death was Charles Saxon, 57, who was struck by a tree limb while clearing debris outside his Calhoun Falls home in Abbeville County.

A short time later, 21-year-old Zhen Tain died in a crash on a wet and windy  Interstate-77 just east of Columbia, and Sumter County Coroner Robert Baker Jr. said 54-year-old William McBride was pronounced dead Tuesday of carbon monoxide poisoning after he had run a generator inside his mobile home for several hours, with only a single window cracked for ventilation.

In Georgia, a man in his 50s was killed in suburban Atlanta when a tree fell on hsi house while he was sleeping. A Forsyth County woman was killed when a tree fell on her vehicle while it was parked in a private driveway.

Also on Tuesday, Southern Florida continued to stagger from rescue toward recuperation. Florida Power and Light said it has organized the largest restoration brigade ever assembled in the United States: more than 19,000 line workers, arborists and other technicians, though power may not be restored for weeks to all of the more than 6 million Floridians still in the dark.

“We assembled the largest pre-storm restoration workforce in our nation’s history, but this will likely be a recovery effort of historic proportions, extending for weeks,” Florida Power and Light CEO Eric Silagy said. “You have my personal commitment that we will continue to work around the clock until every customer’s electricity is back on.”

Most of FPL’s estimated 10 million customers remained without electricity at 3 p.m. Monday, according to the company, the largest electric provider in the state. The Florida Keys were entirely without power.

Schools in Miami-Dade and Broward County are closed until further notice. None suffered major damages but many are being used as shelters. Miami-Dade and Monroe counties (the Keys) have issued dusk-to-dawn curfews. Residents of southern Florida have been advised to boil their drinking water.

Every one of FPL’s 470,000 accounts in Collier and Lee counties, in southwest Florida, was affected. Those counties and their biggest cities, including Naples and Fort Myers, were pummeled by the strongest parts of the storm. The Naples Municipal Airport in Collier County recorded a gust of 142 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Aerial views of Collier County showed widespread flooding, with some coastal communities entirely submerged.

The storm generated record flooding along the St. Johns River in the Jacksonville area, Gov. Rick Scott said Monday. Scott said river flooding remains a danger despite the storm having passed.

“We’ve got downed power lines all across the state,” he said.

The good news — or less than horrible, anyway — was that the storm surge on Florida’s Gulf Coast was not as bad as expected. That’s because as Irma wandered toward central Florida it lost power, so that while the counterclockwise winds ahead of its eye pushed water away from the shore, after it had wandered inland and then wandered back, the winds behind the eye, now blowing west to east, had moderated.

The worst damage was in the Florida Keys and the northeastern Caribbean islands, some of which were nearly totally destroyed.

Gov. Scott described the destruction in the Keys as “horrible,” but denied early reports that as many as 10,000 people who rode out the storm there may have to be evacuated.

“A lot of boats washed ashore,” Scott said. “We saw basically almost every trailer park overturned.

“My heart goes out to the people in the Keys. It’s horrible what we saw.”

The destruction encompassed the entire state. Irma packed more than 300-mile-wide tropical storm-force winds when it arrived in Florida. By then it had decimated large swaths of property in Barbuda, St. Martin and the Virgin Islands as a Category 5 storm, and battered Cuba before making landfall in the Keys as a Category 4 hurricane on Saturday.

Gusts of more than 80 mph continued in northern Palm Beach County on Monday.

In addition to the 19,000 FPL workers, the Department of Defense has deployed 15,000 service members to relief operations: 4,600 in the Virgin Islands and another 10,400 throughout the area.

Gas stations ran out of fuel in southern Georgia Monday, where most traffic was heading north — except for lines of National Guard vehicles heading south. Parts of Atlanta lost power Monday afternoon, where heavy rain and gusty winds had tapered off by Tuesday morning.

A Courthouse News reporter who evacuated from Tallahassee saw a spray-painted message on plywood that had been nailed over a window: “Be nice, Irma.”

(Courthouse News photos by Izzy Kapnick show scenes from Delray Beach, top, North Palm Beach, center, and Jupiter, on Monday. CNS reporters Monica Pais in Miami, Chelsea Razavi in Tallahassee and Tracey Dalzell Walsh in Birmingham, Alabama contributed to this report.)

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