Police surround the Rehabilitation Center in Hollywood Hills, Florida, which had no air conditioning after Hurricane Irma knocked out power, Sept 13, 2017. Several patients at the sweltering nursing home died in Hurricane Irma's aftermath, raising fears about the safety of Florida's 4 million senior citizens amid widespread power outages that could go on for days. (JOHN MCCALL/SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL VIA AP)
HOLLYWOOD, Florida – Eight elderly patients died after being left inside a stifling South Florida nursing home that lost power during Hurricane Irma, officials said on Wednesday, prompting a criminal investigation that has compounded a mounting loss of life from the storm.
The overall death toll from Irma climbed to 81 on Wednesday, with several hard-hit Caribbean islands accounting for more than half the fatalities, and officials continued to assess damage inflicted by the second major hurricane to strike the US mainland this year.
Irma killed at least 31 people in Florida, plus seven more in Georgia and South Carolina combined, authorities said.
Some 4.3 million homes and businesses were still without power on Wednesday in Florida and neighboring states, down from a peak outage tally of 7.4 million customers on Monday
One of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, Irma bore down on the Caribbean with devastating force as it raked the northern shore of Cuba last week before barreling into the Florida Keys island chain on Sunday, packing sustained winds of up to 215 km per hour. It then plowed north up the Gulf Coast of the state before dissipating.
In addition to severe flooding across Florida and extensive property damage in the Keys, one of the chief hardships facing Floridians has been widespread power outages that initially plunged more than half the state into darkness.
Some 4.3 million homes and businesses were still without power on Wednesday in Florida and neighboring states, down from a peak outage tally of 7.4 million customers on Monday.
Outages had fatal consequences at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hill, a nursing home in Hollywood, Florida, north of Miami. Three elderly residents were found dead on Wednesday inside the sweltering facility, which had been operating with little or no air conditioning, officials said.
Four more patients died at or en route to a nearby hospital and a fifth was later identified as having died the night before, bringing the tally of those who perished to eight, the city said.
Governor Rick Scott called the tragedy "unfathomable" and vowed to "aggressively demand answers." Police said they have sealed off the building and opened a criminal probe after the remaining nursing home patients were transferred to neighboring hospitals.
City officials described the interior of the building as "excessively hot."
The eight who died ranged in age from 71 to 99, according to the Broward County medical examiner's office. The cause of their deaths has yet to be determined.
Staff members at Westwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and firefighters from Fort Walton Beach Fire Department load Hurricane Irma evacuees, who had stayed at Westwood since last Saturday, onto a bus on Sept 13, 2017 to head back to the their facility in Mayo, Florida. (NICK TOMECEK/NORTHWEST FLORIDA DAILY NEWS VIA AP)
But most of the surviving patients were treated for "respiratory distress, dehydration and heat-related issues," Memorial Regional Hospital's emergency medical director, Dr. Randy Katz, told reporters.
Fire and rescue teams were first called to the facility at about 3:00 am for a patient reported in cardiac arrest, and firefighters returned an hour later for a resident with breathing difficulties, the city said.
As additional patients were found in distress, police and doctors from Memorial Hospital finally decided to evacuate the entire nursing home at about 6:00 am, according to accounts from Katz and Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez. Katz called the situation "chaotic."
Florida Power & Light provided electricity to parts of the nursing home but the facility was not on a county top-tier list for emergency power restoration, the utility said.