Criminal probe opens into 8 deaths at Florida nursing home after Irma

HOLLYWOOD, Fla./SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Sept 13 (Reuters) - Police on Wednesday opened a criminal investigation into the deaths of eight elderly patients inside a stifling South Florida nursing home that lost power during Hurricane Irma.

The overall death toll from the storm 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 U.S. mainland this year.

Irma killed at least 29 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 barreling into the Florida Keys island chain on Sunday, packing sustained winds of up to 130 miles per hour. It then plowed north up the Gulf Coast of the state before dissipating.

17 PHOTOS
Care facilities hit by Hurricane Irma
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Care facilities hit by Hurricane Irma
Two days after Hurricane Irma, Rodriquez Benjamin, 86, stands in the door of his room waiting for help to arrive, without power, food, or water at at Cypress Run, an assisted living facility, in Immokalee, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills is seen in Hollywood, north of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity
Guillermo Nunez speaks to the media regarding the condition of Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills patient, Saga Garcia, the mother of his sister in law in front of the Center in Hollywood, north of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity
Firefighters cross police tape with the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in the background in Hollywood, north of Miami, Florida, U.S. September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity
Guillermo Nunez speaks to the media regarding the condition of Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills patient, Saga Garcia, the mother of his sister in law in front of the Center in Hollywood, north of Miami, Florida, U.S. September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity
City of Hollywood police officers were on hand for crowds of people and heavy traffic at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, north of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity
A street sign lies askew across the traffic circle from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, north of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity
Two days after Hurricane Irma, Mary Mitchell, 82, lays on a hospital bed in her room, without power, food, or water at Cypress Run, an assisted living facility, in Immokalee, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
Two days after Hurricane Irma, William James, 83, sits without power, food or water, in his room at Cypress Run, an assisted living facility, in Immokalee, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
Two days after Hurricane Irma, an elderly resident stand in a dark hallway at Cypress Run, an assisted living facility without power, food, or water, in Immokalee, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
CAPE CORAL, FL -SEP 12: Barbara asked to be positioned near a large window to enjoy both the light and the slight breeze that came through the window hoping to get relief from the heat. -A visit to the Cape Coral Shores, a memory care facility, revealed difficult conditions for residents due to the fact that the home is still without power after Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CAPE CORAL, FL -SEP 12: Bob had been wearing protective cloth sleeves for his skin condition but as temperatures rose he was hot and uncomfortable so the nursing staff removed them to help him cool down. -A visit to the Cape Coral Shores, a memory care facility, revealed difficult conditions for residents due to the fact that the home is still without power after Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CAPE CORAL, FL -SEP 12: Russell is comforted by his guardian Liz Pendy as Russell and other residents endure uncomfortable conditions at the memory care facility that has no power. -A visit to the Cape Coral Shores, a memory care facility, revealed difficult conditions for residents due to the fact that the home is still without power after Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CAPE CORAL, FL -SEP 12: Kathleen watches traffic go by and is quite bored at the Cape Coral Shores memory care facility. She'd prefer to be watching her favorite TV shows or listening to the radio but cannot due to the power outage. -A visit to the Cape Coral Shores, a memory care facility, revealed difficult conditions for residents due to the fact that the home is still without power after Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CAPE CORAL, FL -SEP 12: Louis, who is an army veteran who fought in World War II, is among those living in difficult conditions at the Cape Coral Shores memory care facility. -A visit to the Cape Coral Shores, a memory care facility, revealed difficult conditions for residents due to the fact that the home is still without power after Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
CAPE CORAL, FL -SEP 12: Residents of the Cape Coral Shores memory care facility kill time because due to the power outage they can't watch TV or listen to the radio. They also have no air conditioning. -A visit to the Cape Coral Shores, a memory care facility, revealed difficult conditions for residents due to the fact that the home is still without power after Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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In addition to severe flooding in areas across Florida and extensive property damage in the Keys, one of the chief hardships facing Floridians has been widespread power outages that initially left more than half of the state without electricity.

Some 4.2 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.

The power losses had tragic 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 left without air conditioning, officials said. Five more patients from the nursing home later died at a nearby hospital, they said.

Police said they have opened an investigation into possible criminal negligence.

"The building has been sealed off and we are conducting a criminal investigation inside," Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez told reporters on Wednesday.

"It was very hot on the second floor."

More than 100 residents at the nursing home were transferred along with patients from a nearby facility that also was evacuated due to the criminal investigation, Hollywood officials said.

"Most of the patients have been treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and heat-related issues," Randy Katz, a spokesman for Memorial Regional Hospital, told reporters. Memorial Regional is located across the street from the nursing home.

Police were first called to the facility at about 4:30 a.m. but authorities did not arrive until after 6 a.m., officials said.

Florida Power & Light said it had provided electricity to some parts of the Hollywood nursing homebut that the facility was not on a county top-tier list for emergency power restoration.

"I am going to work to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place," Governor Rick Scott said in a statement. "This situation is unfathomable. Every facility that is charged with caring for patients must take every action and precaution to keep their patients safe."

NEW DAMAGE ESTIMATES

Irma caused about $25 billion in insured losses, including $18 billion in the United States and $7 billion in the Caribbean, catastrophe modeler Karen Clark & Co estimated on Wednesday.

The Florida Keys were particularly hard hit, with federal officials saying that 25 percent of homes were destroyed and 65 percent suffered major damage.

15 PHOTOS
The worst of Hurricane Irma's destruction
See Gallery
The worst of Hurricane Irma's destruction
A destroyed trailer park is seen after Hurricane Irma strikes Florida, in Plantation Key in the Florida Keys, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
An uprooted tree that slashed a trailer in half in the wake of Hurricane Irma is pictured at a mobile home park in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S. September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Gregg Newton
Storm damage is seen from the air after hurricane Irma passed Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, September 11, 2017. Picture taken September 11, 2017. Captain George Eatwell RM/Ministry of Defence handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
Boats wrecked by Hurricane Irma are seen from a plane in Sint Maarten, Netherlands September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Waves crash at the seafront Malecon seen from a damaged restaurant after Hurricane Irma caused flooding and a blackout, in Havana, Cuba September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
SAINT MARTIN - SEPTEMBER 11: Hurricane damage on the island of Saint Martin after the passage of the hurricane IRMA through the Caribbean Islands on September 11, 2017 in the French island of Saint Martin. (Photo by Aurelien Morissard/IP3/Getty Images)
MARCO ISLAND, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: An office with the roof missing is seen after Hurricane Irma passed in Marco Island, Fla. on Monday, Sept 11, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
PHILIPSBURG, ST MAARTEN - SEPTEMBER 11: Franklin Sosa from San Pedro Macoris, Dominican Republic, walks past a split palm tree on September 11, 2017 in Philipsburg, St. Maarten. The Caribbean island sustained extensive damage from Hurricane Irma. (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)
NAPLES, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: A man walks through a flooded street in a rural part of Naples the morning after Hurricane Irma swept through the area on September 11, 2017 in Naples, Florida. Hurricane Irma made another landfall near Naples yesterday after inundating the Florida Keys. Electricity was out in much of the region with extensive flooding. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
EAST NAPLES, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: A home is shown damaged after Hurricane Irma hit the area on September 11, 2017 in East Naples, Florida. Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm on Sunday, lashing the state with 130 mph winds as it moved up the coast. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Housing insulation is seen floating in flood water in a mobile housing park after the passing of Hurricane Irma in Naples, Florida, U.S. September 11, 2017 REUTERS/Stephen Yang
A bedroom is seen in a mobile housing park after the passing of Hurricane Irma in Naples, Florida, U.S. September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Yang
JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: Justin Hand navigates storm surge flood waters from Hurricane Irma along the St. Johns River on Sept. 11, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. Flooding in downtown Jacksonville along the river topped a record set during Hurricane Dora in 1965. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: The St. Johns River rises from storm surge flood waters from Hurricane Irma on Sept. 11, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. Flooding in downtown Jacksonville along the river topped a record set during Hurricane Dora in 1965. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
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Most residents had left by then and police have barred re-entry to most of the Keys to allow more time to restore electricity and medical service and bring water, food and fuel.

President Donald Trump is due to visit the region on Thursday.

Irma wreaked total devastation in parts of the Caribbean, where at least 43 people have died.

People who fled their homes in hard-hit islands including St. Martin and the U.S. Virgin Islands that were all but cut off from the world for days arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, late Tuesday.

Michael Benson, 65, of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, said he lost everything.

"My house, my business, both my vehicles, everything is gone," said Benson, who was stopping in San Juan before continuing to Boston to seek refuge with his wife's brother.

"But we have life. We rode out that horrible storm in a shower that I had reinforced after Hurricane Marilyn," Benson added.

Irma hit the United States about two weeks after Hurricane Harvey plowed into Houston, killing about 60 and causing some $180 billion in damage, mostly from flooding.

(Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Mami, Daniel Trotta in Orlando, Florida, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Letitia Stein in Detroit, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Gina Cherelus, Peter Szekeley and Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Diane Craft)

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