Paradise has seen better days. The Florida Keys are battered, if not entirely bowed

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Now that Irma's devastating run through the Florida Keys is over, residents return to check the destructive storm's

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 Hurricane Irma as it careened through the islands.

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.

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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.

President Trump planned to visit the hurricane zone Thursday, the White House said, without disclosing an itinerary.

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.

paradise-has-seen-better-days-the-florida-keys-are-battered-if-not-entirely-bowed photo 2 Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times Laura Costello peers into her home that was ripped apart by Hurricane Irma, at the Sea Breeze trailer park in Islamorada. Laura Costello peers into her home that was ripped apart by Hurricane Irma, at the Sea Breeze trailer park in Islamorada. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Photos: Aerial images of damage to the Florida Keys by Hurricane Irma »

“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.

paradise-has-seen-better-days-the-florida-keys-are-battered-if-not-entirely-bowed photo 3 Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times Brooke Gilbert, 15, and her father, Mike Gilbert, look at her grandparents' condominium building in Islamorada. Brooke Gilbert, 15, and her father, Mike Gilbert, look at her grandparents' condominium building in Islamorada. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

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.”

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Apple has announced two new iPhones. This year, Los Angeles saw its lowest number of homicides in a summer since the 1960s. If Democrats want to take back the House in 2018, they need to win in California. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remain underrepresented on prime-time TV shows, according to a new study.

Apple has announced two new iPhones. This year, Los Angeles saw its lowest number of homicides in a summer since the 1960s. If Democrats want to take back the House in 2018, they need to win in California. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remain underrepresented on prime-time TV shows, according to a new study.

paradise-has-seen-better-days-the-florida-keys-are-battered-if-not-entirely-bowed photo 5 CAPTION

Apple has announced two new iPhones. This year, Los Angeles saw its lowest number of homicides in a summer since the 1960s. If Democrats want to take back the House in 2018, they need to win in California. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remain underrepresented on prime-time TV shows, according to a new study.

Apple has announced two new iPhones. This year, Los Angeles saw its lowest number of homicides in a summer since the 1960s. If Democrats want to take back the House in 2018, they need to win in California. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remain underrepresented on prime-time TV shows, according to a new study.

paradise-has-seen-better-days-the-florida-keys-are-battered-if-not-entirely-bowed photo 6 CAPTION

Irma’s death toll in the U.S. barely hit the double digits. NASA's Cassini spacecraft set off for Saturn in 1997. The mission, built and flown by JPL, has been a huge scientific success. The Dodgers have lost 15 of their last 16 games. James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” is the behind the scenes story of “The Room."

Irma’s death toll in the U.S. barely hit the double digits. NASA's Cassini spacecraft set off for Saturn in 1997. The mission, built and flown by JPL, has been a huge scientific success. The Dodgers have lost 15 of their last 16 games. James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” is the behind the scenes story of “The Room."

paradise-has-seen-better-days-the-florida-keys-are-battered-if-not-entirely-bowed photo 7 CAPTION

The Times' Gary Klein and Lindsey Thiry discuss the latest developments in the Aaron Donald situation as the Rams prepare for Week 2 against the Washington Redskins, plus two players sign contract extensions and a look back at a dominant victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the opener. 

The Times' Gary Klein and Lindsey Thiry discuss the latest developments in the Aaron Donald situation as the Rams prepare for Week 2 against the Washington Redskins, plus two players sign contract extensions and a look back at a dominant victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the opener. 

paradise-has-seen-better-days-the-florida-keys-are-battered-if-not-entirely-bowed photo 8 CAPTION

On the night of July 26, a vehicle went through a guardrail on Highway 180, plunging 500 feet into the Kings River. River conditions were monitored daily to determine when a recovery operation could take place. The flow of the river gradually decreased and the bodies were recovered Sept. 1. 

On the night of July 26, a vehicle went through a guardrail on Highway 180, plunging 500 feet into the Kings River. River conditions were monitored daily to determine when a recovery operation could take place. The flow of the river gradually decreased and the bodies were recovered Sept. 1. 

paradise-has-seen-better-days-the-florida-keys-are-battered-if-not-entirely-bowed photo 9 CAPTION

The storm ravaged through the state early Sunday. It has ripped roofs from homes, flooded neighborhoods and nearly 4.5 million are without power.

The storm ravaged through the state early Sunday. It has ripped roofs from homes, flooded neighborhoods and nearly 4.5 million are without power.

Times staff writers Evan Halper in Jacksonville, Fla., and Laura King in Washington contributed to this report.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

twitter: @mcdneville

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