Eight elderly patients died after being left inside a stifling South Florida nursing home that lost power during Hurricane Irma, compounding a mounting loss of life from the storm, and a criminal investigation is underway.
The overall death toll from Irma climbed to 81 on Wednesday, with several hard-hit Caribbean islands accounting for more than half the fatalities as officials continue to assess the 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.
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 barrelling into the Florida Keys island chain on Sunday, packing sustained winds of up to 215 kilometres per hour. It then headed 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 neighbouring states, down from a peak outage tally of 7.4 million customers on Monday.
Outages had fatal consequences at 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 neighbouring 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.
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 3am 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 6am, according to accounts from Katz and Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez. Katz called the situation "chaotic."
Total insured losses from the storm are expected to run about $US25 billion, including $US18 billion in the United States and $US7 billion in the Caribbean, catastrophe modeler Karen Clark & Company estimated on Wednesday.
The Florida Keys were particularly hard hit, with federal officials saying 90 percent of its homes were destroyed or heavily damaged. The remote island chain stretches nearly 160 kilometres into the Gulf of Mexico from Florida's southern tip, connected by a single highway and series of bridges.
© RAW 2017