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    Irma leaves millions in Fla. without power as Keys begin to reopen

    A jumble of power poles lined a road in Estero, Fla.
    Michael S. Williamson/Washington Post
    A jumble of power poles lined a road in Estero, Fla.

    MIAMI — Millions of Floridians grappled with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on Tuesday, confronting a daunting, uncomfortable reality. About half of the nation’s third-most-populous state still lacked power in the storm’s wake, and for some of them, the lights may not come back on for days or even weeks.

    ‘‘We understand what it means to be in the dark,’’ said Robert Gould, vice president and chief communications officer for Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility. ‘‘We understand what it means to be hot and without air conditioning. We will be restoring power day and night.’’

    But, he acknowledged: ‘‘This is going to be a very uncomfortable time.’’

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    Across the state, that discomfort played out in homes that were silent without the usual thrum of perpetual air conditioning. It meant refrigerators unable to cool milk and freezers unable to chill chicken. Even for those who had power, some were also struggling to maintain cellphone service or Internet access, sending Floridians into tree-riddled streets in an effort to spot a few precious bars of signal to contact loved ones.

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    Utility companies made progress, restoring power to some people. At one point, the Department of Homeland Security said, about 15 million Floridians — an astonishing three out of four residents — lacked power.

    Throughout the day Tuesday, state officials gradually lowered the number of customers without power, dropping it to 5.2 million from 6.5 million a day earlier. Since each power company account can represent more than one person, the sheer number of people without electricity was daunting: Going by the Homeland Security estimates, at one point Irma had knocked out power to one out of every 22 Americans.

    Gould said that for the utility, which powers about half of the state, customers on Florida’s east coast should have power back by the end of the weekend. People in western Florida, closer to where Irma made landfall on Sunday, should have it back by Sept. 22, nearly two weeks after that happened. But this does not include places with severe flooding or tornado damage, he said, and those areas could face a longer wait before the lights returned.

    The unprecedented outages — knocking out power to more than half of Florida’s homes and businesses — also unleashed a cascade effect across the region. Millions of people who fled Irma may struggle to return home for weeks as crews try to deal with downed lines, debris, and a storm-swamped electrical grid. Electrical power is needed, too, to keep water and sanitation systems operating. Temperatures are expected to approach 90 degrees in South Florida by Friday.

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    Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, warned the many residents still stuck in the dark that ‘‘it’s going to take us a long time to get the power back up.’’

    Hurricane Irma has left millions of residents in Florida, including those at the Cape Coral Shores facility (above), without lights or air conditioning.
    Michael S. Williamson/Washington Post
    Hurricane Irma has left millions of residents in Florida, including those at the Cape Coral Shores facility (above), without lights or air conditioning.

    Florida was not alone. Blackouts hit wide areas in Georgia and South Carolina — with more blows possible as the remains of Irma moved north.

    Georgia power officials said Tuesday that about 800,000 people in the state lacked power. Some air service was scheduled to resume to Miami and other Florida airports, but hundreds of flights remained canceled in Atlanta, a key hub in the country’s air travel system.

    In Jacksonville, the city tucked along Florida’s northeast coast that sustained historic flooding as the St. Johns River swelled, the sheriff’s office said Tuesday mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted.

    Rescuers had used boats, water scooters, and even surfboards to get to residents surprised by the rising waters, said Kimberly Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Clay County emergency center. ‘‘You have to get creative in a situation like this,’’ she said.

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    The sheriff’s office said 356 people were rescued from the flooding and added an admonishing note on Twitter, saying it hoped that those people ‘‘will take evacuation orders more seriously in the future.’’

    Remarkably, the storm could have been much worse.

    That was the grateful mantra on the lips of many who surveyed the damage in the mainland United States. Though there was significant property damage in the Florida Keys and in some parts of southwest Florida, officials said they were investigating just a small number of fatalities that came as the storm made landfall.

    The number of deaths in Florida climbed to 13, in addition to four in South Carolina and two in Georgia. At least 37 people were killed in the Caribbean, according to the Associated Press.

    Police in Winter Park, Fla., outside Orlando, said a 51-year-old man was apparently electrocuted by a downed power line in a roadway. The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia said it was investigating a woman who was killed when a tree fell on her vehicle.

    Damage to water supplies in the Keys remained a top concern, however. A Defense Department statement said an estimated 10,000 people who rode out the hurricane in the Keys could still face evacuation. But there were no immediate plans underway to move people from the island chain.

    Officials said up to a quarter of the homes in the Keys were destroyed. Those islands took the brunt of the storm.

    Authorities in Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, said they would begin allowing residents and business owners to return to some parts of the archipelago on Tuesday morning, including Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada.

    In a message posted online, Monroe County officials said people heading back to the Keys should remember that ‘‘most areas are still without power and water,’’ cellphone reception is questionable and most gas stations remain shut.

    In St. Petersburg on the west coast, Marilyn Miller awoke at 1:30 a.m. Monday to a pitch-black house. A native Floridian, Miller was expecting the outages and has even gotten used to them after enduring years of tropical storms.

    What she didn’t expect, she said, was the possibility that the blackout could last for days. As neighbor after neighbor on her block tried to call Duke Energy for help, they heard that just 80 homes in their neighborhood lost power — out of more than 100,000 across Pinellas County.

    It became clear, Miller said, that her neighborhood would not be a priority.

    ‘‘I need my cellphone. It wakes me up in the morning for work. I need my air conditioner at nighttime,’’ she said. ‘‘Can’t cook. Can’t see. Can’t do anything.’’