By Andy Sullivan
FLORIDA CITY, Fla. (Reuters) - Dozens of residents who fled the Florida Keys in anticipation of Hurricane Irma's wrath grew impatient on Monday, as they waited at a police checkpoint eager to get back to their island homes to assess the damage.
Tensions flared as authorities insisted it was not safe to return. Some evacuees warned they would be less willing to leave next time if they were not allowed through soon.
"I've been in the Keys for 40 years," Shelby Bentley told reporters at a non-operational gas station in Florida City. "It's the first time I've evacuated from a hurricane. It'll be my last time."
Irma barreled into the Florida Keys on Sunday, bringing sustained winds of up to 130 mph (209 kph) and submerging the highway that connects the archipelago off the tip of southern Florida with the mainland.
Ahead of the storm, one of the most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic, officials said they were pleasantly surprised to see tens of thousands of residents accustomed to the area's laidback lifestyle take evacuation orders to heart.
By late Monday morning, the cooperative spirit started to unravel.
With only emergency vehicles allowed into the Keys, residents stuck at the checkpoint in Florida City, a Miami suburb, shouted at police and swore at media.
Many said they regretted their inland retreat. Some accused police of accepting bribes to let other residents in, and they refused to drive to a racetrack a few miles away to register before returning to their homes.
"People have been waiting here since 5 a.m.," said photographer Marc Serota, 52. "They'll say anything they can to make us go away."
Serota said he had the required residential sticker that allowed him to return to island and that he and other evacuees were prepared to deal with the lack of power and water.
"Everybody here has carloads of water and jugs of gas," he said. "I've got a chainsaw ready to go."
Not so fast, said state and county officials.
"The Keys are not open for business," read a statement from Monroe County, which includes the string of tropical islands.
The islands are a popular tourist destination, drawing millions of visitors each year for fishing, diving and boating. American author Ernest Hemingway called Key West home for more than a decade, and his former house remains an attraction.
But on Monday, most of the Keys had no fuel, no electricity, no running water and no cell service, local officials said.
Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Joe Sanchez said residents would not be allowed back into the Keys until authorities had inspected the bridges to make sure they are safe. Trees, seaweed and watercraft were blocking roads, he added.
Officials did not give a time frame on when people would be allowed back.
"If you have a property down in the Keys, you'll have to wait," he said.
Some took the delay in stride. Drinking a can of beer as he lounged at the back of his pickup truck, Armando Boan, 55, said he might camp out in the Everglades for a few days.
"It's all about your frame of mind," he said. "This is out of my hands."
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; editing by Diane Craft)