People here like to throw around the word "paradise," but these days Route 1 down the spine of the Florida Keys cuts through a jagged tableau of destruction.
Felled palms, splintered trailers and homes, and piles of trash — boats, furniture, appliances and other assorted debris — line the roadside, testament to the force of
Shuttered doors and tangles of broken branches conceal resorts with resonant names like Kon-Tiki, the Banyan Tree, La Siesta and the Green Turtle Inn.
Many residents were returning to their homes Tuesday for the first time, as police allowed access to the northern swath of the Keys. Many expected the worst, and that is what they found amid rubble that glistened beneath an unforgiving tropical sun.
“I moved here because I wanted paradise — and I got it, at least for a month,” said Laura Costello, 52, a former South Pasadena resident who was found walking through the ruins of the Sea Breeze trailer park in Islamorada, a few miles south of Key Largo.
The Keys had perhaps taken the heaviest blow in the U.S. from Irma — federal authorities estimated that 85% of the homes were damaged or destroyed — but the storm left its muddy footprints all over Florida and into Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. It was still plodding north on Tuesday, spreading rain over a widening swath of the Southeast. In its wake was a massive cleanup job, complicated by fuel shortages and power outages; an estimated 15 million people in the Southeast lacked electricity.
In Florida, there was significant damage as far north as Jacksonville, which sustained its heaviest flooding in decades.
The death toll from the storm was rising, with 12 fatalities in Florida, four in South Carolina and two in Georgia, according to the Associated Press. The storm killed at least 36 people on its rampage through the eastern Caribbean last week before hitting Florida with full force on Sunday.
By Tuesday, Islamorada looked like a malevolent giant had come stomping through, wreaking havoc on people’s homes and personal possessions. Gnarled chunks of aluminum siding were thrown about with wood beams, many with protruding nails, and other pieces of former residences.
Among the many nautical remnants: a placard found tossed in the pearl-white sand of the trailer park that declared: "To our guests. Thou shalt not bring thy worries aboard."
A few American flags fluttered from the wreckage.
Costello said she began renting a trailer here a month ago for $1,500 a month. She always loved the sea.
"This was the ultimate for me," she said. "I could sit out and watch the sun rise and set. It was what I always wanted. It was a dream."
Her one-bedroom trailer is now a ragged wreck, pushed 10 yards off its cement foundation. Her seaside deck was blown 15 yards away.
"There's my bed," Costello said, pointing at a wooden frame half a block from where her home was. "Those are my curtains."
Fortunately, she heeded the warnings and evacuated last Wednesday with her most precious possessions. She had lived in Florida for more than 20 years and didn't discount the dangers of hurricanes.
On Tuesday she plucked from the ruins of her dream home a single item: a glass frame mounted with color photographs of her three children when they were young. All are grown now.
"I have my health, I have my life. I'm fine," said Costello, a bartender in nearby Key Largo, standing at the splintered entrance to her trailer. "I'm just glad I got out of here."
Nearby were storefronts with plywood strips and shattered windows — and in some cases blown-off roofs. There were storm-battered wine bars, cafes, fish joints, yoga haunts and bait shops. Piled junk obscured the colorful mural of a mermaid on a motel wall.
The trail of damage seemed oddly disjointed. Destroyed homes sat next to other structures that appeared largely unaffected.
In a small harbor, several manatees came to the surface to drink fresh water from a faucet dripping into a now becalmed sea. The slow-moving sea mammals maneuvered around a sunken fishing boat.
But many storage facilities where people kept their vessels onshore seemed to have escaped major harm.
The damage was reported to be even more severe to the south in Marathon, but police closed access. Several small planes at the airport there were reportedly flipped over as authorities endeavored to clear debris-choked streets.
Here in Islamorada, the Gilbert family was contemplating the remains of their condo, once on the third floor of a 12-unit complex along Route 1. The land is very narrow here, perhaps a quarter of a mile or less across, and the sea appeared to have ripped straight through the condominium complex. Most of it sank into the soft sand.
The three-story structure had pancaked, leaving the family's third-level condo at ground level, in front of a pool of water with ripped pipes and other debris.
"This is very emotional for me and my family," said Brooke Gilbert, 15, gazing at the remains of the structure and showing a visitor a cellphone snapshot of the building in better times.
The family drove down today from their home in Fort Lauderdale to view the damage. The condo was her grandparents', but had been part of the Gilberts' life for many years. Someone had sent them a photo of the destroyed structure, but they only arrived Tuesday to view it firsthand. They were in collective disbelief.
"This is where I learned to swim, where I learned to drive a boat, where I caught my first lobster," said Brooke, holding back tears as she and her father, Michael Gilbert, observed the smashed home.
It was too unsteady to go inside to retrieve personal items.
"It's just very difficult for us to come back here and see this," said Brooke. "It was such a part of all of our lives. Now it's gone."
Times staff writers Evan Halper in Jacksonville, Fla., and Laura King in Washington contributed to this report.