Hurricane Irma: Keys residents line up at checkpoint

Story highlights

Eight nursing home residents died in Hollywood, Florida

Power still out for millions in Florida, thousands in Georgia

CNN  — 

Frustrations grew Wednesday along a two-lane stretch of highway through the Florida Keys as disappointed residents were told it wasn’t safe enough for them to return home.

The lower Keys were particularly hard hit by Hurricane Irma, with first responders Wednesday still searching through wreckage.

In Ramrod Key, a search-and-rescue team had to cut its way through a pile of brush and trees in the front yard of a house before forcing the front door open. Inside they found an elderly woman who had stayed home during the fierce hurricane. The team gave her water and got her out.

In Big Pine Key, houses were reduced to splinters.

A home on Big Pine Key was ripped apart by the Category 4 hurricane.

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 cellphone service. Just stay away for about two weeks.

“Let the first responders … do their job, and y’all can come back later.”

Still, residents flocked to the Keys. At a checkpoint on Lower Matecumbe Key, sheriff’s deputies turned away people trying to get to their homes in the lower Keys. Instead of going back north, many just pulled their cars over to the side of the highway, sat and waited.

Deputies told CNN’s Brian Todd there was no timetable for permitting access. A deputy at the checkpoint said they were trying to keep people safe.

One man showed another deputy a pill bottle and it seemed he wanted to get medicine to someone down the road. He was told to turn around. When he tried to drive around the deputy, the officer moved in front of him and yelled at him to go back.

Other residents complained that they knew the risks and were willing to accept them. Many wanted to survey the damage and some wanted to prevent looting.

Eight nursing home residents die

Florida’s governor called on first responders Wednesday to check health care facilities statewide after eight nursing home patients died 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 this 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.

Flooding in northern Florida

In Green Cove Springs, on the St. John’s River just south of Jacksonville, many families need a canoe to get to their front doors.

Sharmaine and Todd Moldenhauer went back to their home Wednesday for the first time since the storm hit northern Florida.

It took only a few seconds to learn their home had suffered catastrophic damage. Their house is among the 1,000 homes in the county that have been damaged or destroyed.

Waters have receded from the high point of 6 feet in the structure but continue to flow through the house about shin deep.

“Oh my God, it’s a mess,” said Todd Moldenhauer, who was with the Air Force National Guard during the storm.

He and his wife were able to salvage some favorite photos. Not much else is worth keeping.

There was some good news Wednesday; the water, at least in that part of the state, is receding quickly.

Deadly storm

More than 3 million utility customers in Florida remain without power 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.

Time still need to fix infrastructure, FEMA says

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.

Shelly Hughes gets a first look at her flooded camper at a campground Tuesday in Arcadia, Florida.

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.

Massive power outages still crippled Florida, where about 3.3 million customers had no power as of Wednesday afternoon, and Georgia, where the number of homes, businesses and organizations affected was almost 352,000.

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Impact on nine states

Irma, which stretched 650 miles from east to west, has pummeled at least nine states – deluging city streets, knocking over trees and destroying homes along the way.

– 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.

Hurricane Irma victims need your help

On Monday, Cuban state TV announced 10 hurricane related deaths – meaning Irma killed a total of 36 people in the Caribbean before heading to the US.

CNN’s Miguel Marquez, Chris Boyette, Tina Burnside, Rene Marsh, Darran Simon, and Keith Allen contributed to this report.