Sweetwater, Fla. — A grinding chorus of chain saws and generators kicked in quickly after Hurricane Irma’s roar left Sweetwater, a small, mostly Spanish-speaking town west of Miami where streets were swamped, fences and trees fell, cars got stuck in floodwater and shed roofs bent like tin foil.
Adrian Ortiz, 28, was philosophical as he sat in his BMW on Monday, waiting rather ambitiously for a tow truck. He had tried to make a run home from his girlfriend’s house during the storm, but his sports car stalled after a few blocks as 6th street turned into a wind-whipped canal. He touched the carpet — still soggy.
“I decided to come to Sweetwater, and my car got full of sweet water,” he said with a shrug.
A weakened Irma took its parting shot at Florida on Monday, triggering severe flooding in the state’s northeastern corner, while authorities along the storm’s 400-mile path struggled to rush aid to victims and take the full measure of the damage. The full scale of its destruction was still unknown, in part because of cut-off communications and blocked roads.
Six deaths in Florida have been blamed on Irma, along with three in Georgia and one in South Carolina. At least 35 people were killed in the Caribbean.
The Keys felt Irma’s full fury when it came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane Sunday morning with 130 mph winds. How many people defied evacuation orders and stayed during the storm was unclear.
Statewide, an estimated 13 million people, or two-thirds of Florida’s population, remained without power. That’s more than the population of New York and Los Angeles combined. Officials warned it could take weeks for electricity to be restored to everyone.
More than 180,000 people huddled in shelters in the Sunshine State.
Around midday Monday, Irma also spread misery into Georgia and South Carolina as it moved inland with winds at 50 mph, causing some flooding and power outages.
During its rainy, windy run up the full 400-mile length of Florida, Irma swamped homes, uprooted trees, flooded streets, snapped miles of power lines and toppled construction cranes.
“How are we going to survive from here?” asked Gwen Bush, who waded through thigh-deep floodwaters outside her central Florida home to reach National Guard rescuers and get a ride to a shelter. “What’s going to happen now? I just don’t know.”
Around the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, where Irma rolled through early Monday, damage appeared modest. And the governor said damage on the southwest coast, including in Naples and Fort Myers, was not as bad as feared. In the Keys, though, he said “there is devastation.”
“It’s horrible, what we saw,” Scott said. “I know for our entire state, especially the Keys, it’s going to be a long road.”
He said the Navy dispatched the USS Iwo Jima, USS New York and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to help with search and rescue and other relief efforts.
Emergency managers in the islands declared on Monday “the Keys are not open for business” and warned that there was no fuel, electricity, running water or cell service and that supplies were low and anxiety high.
The Keys are linked by 42 bridges that have to be checked for safety before motorists can be allowed in, officials said. The governor said the route also needs to be cleared of debris and sand, but should be usable fairly quickly.
Over the next two days, Irma is expected to push to the northwest, into Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.
On Monday, electricity was out across the city of Sweetwater, but the people were powered by coffee and little sandwiches, handed through “cafecito” windows that opened early. Residents with weary eyes struggled to clear tree branches and debris. City trucks with giant metal claws were handling the big stuff.
Sweetwater’s name echoes the “river of grass” whose banks were rained for development nearly a century ago: Miami is a Seminole Indian word meaning “sweet water.” The carving up of the Everglades has never slowed. Newer suburbs now stretch for miles between Sweetwater and the swamp, where water levels are now carefully controlled.
This community was spared from the storm surge, but the ground will likely remain saturated for a while. Ahead of the hurricane, the South Florida Water Management District fully opened flood gates to drain water from recent rainstorms into the oceans. Now the trillions of gallons of ocean water Irma dumped on its northward march is also flowing south.
Irma isn’t Sweetwater’s first hurricane by far: The town was being planned when the 1926 Miami Hurricane devastated the area, and development was put on hold during a post-storm real estate bust. In a peculiarly Floridian twist, Russian dwarves revived it the late 1930s, looking for a place to retire.
Now it’s the heart of Miami-Dade County’s Nicaraguan community, and over 90 percent of the Miami suburb is Hispanic.
Jesus Castillo, 50, and his family who have lived in the neighborhood for about nine years. They were cleaning up flood muck and plant debris.
“My entire patio was underwater, and in the street it was two-to-three feet high,” Castillo said in Spanish.
Around the corner, a group of friends helped a woman clear a large tree that had splintered like a toothpick in her backyard, while her neighbor, Bayardo Perez, wrestled with a mangled tin shed roof.
Perez, 62, has lived in the house for decades, through Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and now, Irma.
“This one was worse than Andrew for me,” he said.
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