Hollywood - Eight patients at a sweltering nursing home died after Hurricane Irma knocked out the air conditioning, raising fears onWednesday about the safety of Florida's 4 million senior citizens amid power outages that could go on for days.
Hollywood Police Chief Tom Sanchez said investigators believe the deaths at the Rehabilitation Centre at Hollywood Hills were heat-related, and added: "The building has been sealed off and we are conducting a criminal investigation."
Governor Rick Scott called on Florida emergency workers to immediately check on nursing homes and assisted living facilities to make sure patients are safe, and he ordered an investigation into the deaths.
"This situation is unfathomable," he said.
The home said in a statement that the hurricane had knocked out a transformer that powered the AC.
Exactly how the deaths happened was under investigation, with Sanchez saying authorities have not ruled anything out, including carbon monoxide poisoning from generators. He also said investigators will look into how many windows were open.
Across the street from the nursing home sat a fully air-conditioned hospital, Memorial Regional.
"It's a sad state of affairs," the police chief said. "We all have elderly people in facilities, and we all know we depend on those people in those facilities to care for a vulnerable elderly population."
The deaths came as people trying to put their lives back together in hurricane-stricken Florida and beyond confronted a multitude of new hazards in the storm's aftermath, including tree-clearing accidents and lethal fumes from generators.
In a huge, 15 000-resident Century Village retirement community in Pembroke Pines, more than half the residential buildings had no power on Wednesday afternoon.
Rescue crews began going door to door in the 94-degree heat to check on people and hand out water, ice and meals.
"These people are basically prisoners in their own homes," said Pembroke Pines City Manager Charlie Dodge.
"That's why we are camped out there and doing whatever we can to assist them in this process. And we're not leaving."
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson called the six deaths in Hollywood "an inexcusable tragedy" and called on authorities to get to the bottom of it.
"We need to make sure we're doing everything we can to keep our seniors safe during this difficult time," he said.