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Photos: Volunteers awe-struck as Florida Keys' residents show resilience 2 months after Irma demolition

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
November 08, 2017, 2:36:00 PM EST

Sides of streets lined with dirt, storm debris and remnants of ruined belongings; punctured rooftops bandaged with blue tarp; pink insulation ripped to shreds, dangling in clear view from a home’s doorless, littered garage.

In some areas, the tropical paradise known as the Florida Keys resembles a shadow of what it was before Hurricane Irma struck the islands nearly two months ago.

However, people from around the country are volunteering their time to help the islands recover.

Nearly 2,000 volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization, have been on the ground assisting Keys residents since Sept.18.

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Volunteers have offered emotional support as well as helping homeowners cut trees, clean out flooded homes and tarp roofs destroyed by Irma, according to Todd Taylor, United States disaster relief program manager at Samaritan’s Purse.

Taylor, who is currently deployed in the Keys, helped an elderly couple and their disabled sons cope with a heartbreaking situation.

“They’ve been living in a car,” Taylor said. “They’ve been having some issues with insurance and things like that; our team was able to go in, get their home cleaned out and get them a clean and dry place.”

Some parts of the island chain were hit harder than others, including Big Pine and Sugarloaf keys, and people living on those islands continue to struggle to rebuild their lives.

“These people didn’t have anyone to turn to; it’s hard for them to get guidance,” said Samaritan’s Purse volunteer Jennifer Oosterman, who took three trips to the Keys to help with recovery efforts.

“There are lot of emotions involved with the process of getting rid of all your possessions and starting over,” she said.

With the first floor devastated by the storm, one Keys resident is living on her home’s second floor while she attempts to sell the property and move to the Bahamas.

“The water came in through her back patio doors,” Oosterman said. “It literally took furniture from her house and into the trees in her front yard.”

Despite the hardship, the woman has maintained a positive outlook.

“She just had an amazing spirit and I’m thinking, ‘How can you be in such high spirits six weeks after the hurricane?’,” Oosterman said.

“We complain [after] a week of no electricity, and here they are, still rummaging through bags of belongings and trying to find things and make sense of it all,” she said.

Teams from Samaritan’s Purse have flown in from New York, Michigan, South Carolina and Illinois to offer assistance and support for those still facing a huge post-Irma mess.

Damaged home Florida Keys Hurricane Irma

A Samaritan's Purse volunteer surveys the damage at a home that took a hit from Hurricane Irma. (Photo/Jennifer Oosterman)

“In some areas, it’s little to [no destruction], and in other areas, it’s like a tornado wreckage, houses are on their edges and they have trees through the middle of them,” Oosterman said.

Two months later, people are sorting through the complexities of dealing with insurance, floodplain mitigation and aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to Taylor.

“One of the biggest concerns of the residents [seemed to be] waiting on FEMA,” Oosterman said.

"I saw some Halloween decorations joking around, and skeletons with a sign up [reading], ‘Waiting for FEMA,’ or ‘Waiting for my FEMA check,’ she recalled.

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The Florida Keys have begun to show signs of progress, especially on islands with minimal damage, including Key Largo and Key West.

Getting the tourism industry back up and running has been a major priority, as the Keys’ economy relies heavily on visitors.

Fantasy Fest also made a successful return to Key West in October, albeit with a slightly smaller turnout than the festival’s typical crowd of tens of thousands.

But for residents living in harder-hit areas, a full recovery may take a while.

“People have got a lot of thinking, praying and searching to do as they go about their rebuilding process,” Taylor said.

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