ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Today we're getting a better sense of the scope and impact of the most powerful hurricane ever recorded. Irma killed at least 46 people as the storm passed through the Caribbean and mainland U.S. FEMA estimates that a quarter of all the homes in the Florida Keys were destroyed. NPR's Connor Donevan viewed some of that damage in a Coast Guard flight and joins us now. Hi, Connor.
CONNOR DONEVAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So you flew over the Keys, the area of Florida that was hit the hardest. What did you see?
DONEVAN: I should start with the caveat that the view from 2,000 feet up is not perfect. But on our flight, which took us over Marathon in the middle Keys and then down over the lower Keys - which were some of the hardest-hit areas - we saw houses with roofs ripped off or caved in, flooded streets, boats that had been basically just ripped out of their moorings and tossed onto land. The thing that really stuck with me were these mobile home parks. The trailers in them were just basically flipped, thrown against one another. From the sky it looked almost like someone had just taken a giant box of Tic Tacs and spilled them across a table. What I wasn't able to see was the kind of damage you saw after, say, Hurricane Andrew where there were just those aerial photos that showed block after block reduced to rubble.
SHAPIRO: There's just one main road connecting all of these islands to each other. Could you tell whether it was intact?
DONEVAN: Right. We've heard that two stretches of that road have been washed out. But we did see kind of a tiny glimmer of hope as we flew over a different stretch of that road, the Seven Mile Bridge that connects Marathon to the lower Keys. And on that road, as we flew over, we saw a single vehicle inching its way east to west further into the Keys. Rear Admiral Peter Brown with the Coast Guard, who was kind of narrating this for us, said he took that as a good sign.
PETER BROWN: There we go. We've got traffic on the bridge. The traffic is light, but there is traffic.
DONEVAN: So he's referring to kind of how important of an artery this bridge in the Keys is and how important it's going to be as they start rebuilding. Although we should add that Governor Rick Scott did say that people should not be driving on these bridges, that they still needed to be inspected.
SHAPIRO: When that Coast Guard plane touched down and you got out, what did you see?
DONEVAN: You could see a lot of damage that wasn't visible from above. There were roads that were totally blocked by downed trees or power lines. We passed one gas station whose canopy and pumps were basically crumpled into a heap. And again, you know, it was even more dramatic to see up close those boats thrown up on land. The other thing we saw is a lot of people who hadn't evacuated, people who were just kind of driving around, seemed to be kind of going about their business even though this island is without power, water or cell service.
SHAPIRO: There were some Florida lawmakers with you on this trip - both senators, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, also House Republican Carlos Curbelo. What did you hear from them?
DONEVAN: So when we got off the plane, I asked Curbelo in particular - he represents this district that includes the Florida Keys - what stuck with him the most from what we'd seen. And he said it was this bright, vibrant place, the Florida Keys, that had basically just gone dark.
CARLOS CURBELO: To just see everything kind of at a standstill and for Key West to be a ghost town, that was very striking for me.
DONEVAN: He also emphasized just how much help this area is going to need and the logistical challenges it's facing. Much of the Keys is still without power, water, cell service. And as maybe an illustration of just how far they have to go, as we were taking off from Naval Air Station Key West to come back to Miami, the runway didn't have power for lights. And so our tour went a little long. And we in fact almost got stuck on the island because we couldn't take off without daylight and we were coming up on sunset.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Connor Donevan speaking with us from Miami. Thanks, Connor.
DONEVAN: Thanks so much, Ari.
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