By Andy Sullivan
ISLAMORADA, Fla. (Reuters) - Hurricane Irma evacuees from the Florida Keys began returning to the storm-ravaged island chain on Tuesday to find homes shredded like soda cans and businesses coated in seaweed amid a debris-strewn landscape where an estimated 25 percent of all dwellings were destroyed.
The death toll from Irma, previously ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record and the second major hurricane to strike the U.S. mainland this season, climbed to 43 in the Caribbean, with at least 13 more killed in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
Destruction was widespread in the Keys, a resort archipelago stretching southwest from the tip of the Florida Peninsula into the Gulf of Mexico and connected by a single, narrow highway and a series of bridges and causeways along a nearly 100-mile (160-km) route.
Initial assessments found 25 percent of homes in the Keys demolished and 65 percent with major damage, according to Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
"Basically every house in the Keys was impacted in some way or another," he told reporters.
The islands had largely been evacuated by the time Irma barreled over Cudjoe Key on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane, packing maximum sustained winds of 130 (215 km) miles per hour and a fierce tidal surge.
Two days later authorities began allowing limited re-entry for residents and business owners who had fled the islands of Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada.
The extent of the devastation took many by surprise.
"I expected some fence lines to be down and some debris," said Dr. Orlando Morejon, 51, a trauma surgeon from Miami as he hacked away at the giant tree blocking the driveway to his Islamorada home. "We were not expecting to find someone else's sailboat in our backyard."
The aluminum walls of trailer homes were left ripped wide open, exposing insulation and the sodden interiors of bedrooms and kitchens to the elements.
At the Caloosa Cove Resort and Marina, concrete pilings meant to hold the dock in place had been knocked sideways, and three manatees lolled in the water, drinking from an outflow pump that was spitting water from the side of the dock.
Marilyn Ramos, 44, spent the morning cleaning away the sand and seaweed that had covered her Cuban restaurant Havanos when she arrived early Tuesday.
"I'm trying to stay calm and see how we can work through this," said Ramos, who employs 30 people at her two restaurants. "It's devastating."
A short distance away, the scent of decaying seaweed hung heavy in the air as Brooke Gilbert, 15, stood with her younger sister staring at the jumble of concrete and twisted metal left from the three-story condo that was their family's getaway home.
"There's the couch right there," she said. "I recognize the clothes in that closet. They belong to my grandmother."
At the end of Islamorada, about the halfway point of the Keys, police at a checkpoint turned around returning residents seeking to travel farther south and waved through utility crews, law enforcement and healthcare workers.
Authorities said they were barring re-entry to the remainder of the Keys to allow more time to restore electricity, water, fuel supplies and medical service. U.S. officials have said some 10,000 residents of the Keys stayed put when the storm hit and may ultimately need to be evacuated.
LINGERING OUTAGES, FLOODING
More than 6 million homes and businesses were still without power in Florida and nearby states, down from a peak of about 7.4 million on Monday. Florida's largest utility, Florida Power & Light, said western parts of the state might be without electricity until Sept. 22.
One of the chief deprivations endured by many Floridians in the storm's aftermath was difficulty staying cool in the absence of air conditioning, ice and even natural shade from trees knocked down or stripped bare of foliage.
"I just pour water on my head a few times a day," said Lydia Grondin, 29, of Fort Lauderdale.
In the northeastern corner of Florida, the city of Jacksonville was still recovering from heavy flooding.
"There are so many areas that you would never have thought would have flooded that have flooded," Governor Rick Scott told reporters.
While damage to certain areas Florida was severe, it paled in scope to the devastation wrought by Irma in parts of the Caribbean, which accounted for the bulk of Irma's fatalities.
The hurricane destroyed about one-third of the buildings on the Dutch-ruled portion of the eastern Caribbean island of St. Martin en route to Florida, the Dutch Red Cross said on Tuesday.
Irma hit the United States soon after Hurricane Harvey, which plowed into Houston late last month, killing about 60 and causing some $180 billion in damage, largely through flooding.
The U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was off Florida's east coast and two amphibious assault ships were en route to help in the Keys.
Several major airports in Florida that halted passenger operations due to Irma began limited service on Tuesday, including Miami International, one of the busiest in the United States.
Insured property losses in Florida from Irma were expected to run from $20 billion to $40 billion, catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimated.
Irma was downgraded to a tropical depression on Monday and would likely dissipate Tuesday evening, the National Hurricane Center said.
The center was monitoring another hurricane, Jose, which was spinning in the Atlantic about 700 miles (1,130 km) west of Florida. The Atlantic hurricane season runs through November.
Even as residents of the upper Florida Keys assessed the damage, others who lived on harder-hit islands further south were left to wonder what toll Irma had taken on their property.
"I've just got to wait for someone I know to come along so I can get through here," said mechanic Dean Christiansen, camping out in his truck at the Islamorada checkpoint.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Orlando, Fla., Bernie Woodall, Ben Gruber and Zachary Fagenson in Miami, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Letitia Stein in Detroit, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C., Harriet McLeod in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. and Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)