FLORIDA – Florida’s governor called on first responders Wednesday to check health care facilities statewide after at least six nursing home patients died following a reported air conditioning malfunction in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
The nursing home deaths were reported Wednesday in Hollywood three days after Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys and left millions statewide without power.
The fatalities should spur everyone to check up on senior citizens, who are among the most vulnerable to Florida’s stifling heat, exacerbated by power outages that might extend into next week, Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy said.
“I’m going to aggressively demand answers on how his tragic event took place,” Gov. Rick Scott said. “… I am also asking available first responders to immediately check in with the health care facilities in their area to make sure nursing homes and assisted living facilities are able to keep their residents safe.”
Police were helping to evacuate about 80 residents from the the Krystal Bay Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Miami Beach on Wednesday afternoon. Police public information officer Brian Andrews said residents were being moved from the facility, which has no air conditioning, to another using city trolleys.
The state has the largest percentage of residents who are 65 or older — 19.1% — the Pew Research Center said in 2014, citing census figures. Several counties in hard-hit areas after Irma have senior populations of 33% or higher.
More than 3 million utility customers remain without power in Florida in simmering temperatures. It will be around 90 degrees for parts of central and southern Florida for the next several days, with humidity making the air feel like it’s in the mid-90s.
The hurricane struck northern Caribbean islands last week, leaving at least 44 people dead, before it smashed into the US mainland over the weekend, with at least 33 storm-related deaths reported.
The latter figure doesn’t include the nursing home deaths, which police said were under investigation.
The lower Keys were particularly hard hit, with first responders Wednesday still searching through wreckage.
In Big Pine Key, houses were reduced to splinters. Boats were scattered across land — a reminder that streets were like rivers for hours.
Richard Tabacco stayed with his family on the island through the storm. They are all OK — he got a malfunctioning generator to work at his damaged home Tuesday — but he warns residents who evacuated to stay away.
“There’s nothing here,” he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo, who accompanied an urban search-and-rescue team, on Wednesday. “There’s no gas, there’s no water. There’s no stores. There’s no electricity. There’s no cell phone service. Just stay away for about two weeks.
“Let the first responders … do their job, and y’all can come back later.”
President Donald Trump is set to make his first visit to the region Thursday to see the devastation. “I will be traveling to Florida tomorrow to meet with our great Coast Guard, FEMA and many of the brave first responders & others,” he announced on Twitter.
Customers who lost electricity on Florida’s eastern side will likely have it restored by this weekend because fewer electrical poles came down than in other parts of the state, Florida Power & Light Co. says.
Those on the west coast, where Hurricane Irma made landfall, will likely have power restored by September 22, according to the company.
It says it’s focusing first on restoring power at schools, hospitals and other critical infrastructure.
“It takes a long time to not only to clear the pathways to get power crews in, but also fixing the infrastructure and making sure you have the right equipment” in the areas that need fixing, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Wednesday.
Outages throughout the Southeast
Massive power outages still crippled much of the Southeast on Wednesday. Those without power, according to utilities and authorities:
— FLORIDA: About 3.8 million customers as of Wednesday morning. They include homes, organizations and businesses.
— GEORGIA: About 560,000 customers as of Wednesday morning.
— SOUTH CAROLINA: About 68,000 customers had no power as of Wednesday morning.
— NORTH CAROLINA: About 31,000 customers don’t have electricity as of Wednesday morning.
— ALABAMA: About 1,400 customers as of Tuesday night.
Keys, other areas cut off
Irma cut off communication in entire neighborhoods and communities, particularly on Cudjoe Key, where the storm made landfall Sunday, and many of the other Keys. Authorities and a few residents were finally able to reach some of the island chain Tuesday.
What they found was devastating: Based on initial estimates, 25% of the houses there have been destroyed, FEMA said. An additional 65% suffered major damage.
“Basically, every house in the Keys was impacted some way,” said Long, the FEMA administrator.
But Key West City Manager Jim Scholl told CNN the FEMA estimates might be high. The damage in his city and in his neighborhood on Cudjoe Key didn’t match those dire numbers, he said.
One of the challenges in Key West is moving debris out of roadways and fixing the water infrastructure. The area is under a boil water advisory.
“That’s why we don’t want people to, en masse, return down here to the Keys. And we certainly understand the frustration,” Scholl said. “Everyone wants to get down here and check out their homes.”
But it will be a long wait for those sifting through what’s left of their homes, especially in the oppressive heat and high humidity.
Impact on nine states
Irma, which stretched 650 miles from east to west, has pummeled at least nine states — deluging streets, knocking over trees and destroying homes along the way.
At least 33 storm-related deaths have already been reported on the US mainland, according to local officials:
— Florida has reported 26 deaths, officials have said. That includes eight people who died in Monroe County, which includes the Keys, because of and/or during Hurricane Irma, county spokeswoman Cammy Clark said.
— South Carolina had four deaths. That includes a 57-year-old man struck by a tree limb during the storm in Calhoun Falls; a 54-year-old man who died in a mobile home because of carbon monoxide poisoning while a generator was running; and a man who died in a car crash in Richland County. Authorities also reported the death of a driver with a Florida license plate, but they gave no details.
— Georgia had three deaths. A 62-year-old man who was on his roof was killed in Worth County, which experienced wind gusts of 69 mph. Another man was killed in Sandy Springs when a tree fell on his house. And a woman was killed when a tree struck her vehicle in Cumming.
Flights, hospitals will be back online
While the Keys have a lengthy recovery ahead, signs of normalcy have begun popping up elsewhere in Florida.
Some airports reopened with limited operations Tuesday.
And Florida Hospital, a health provider in the state, said it would reopen many of its affected facilities on Tuesday or Wednesday.
This is the first time on record that the continental United States has had two Category 4 hurricane landfalls in the same year. Last month, Hurricane Harvey devastated much of coastal Texas and killed more than 70 people.