FORT MYERS, Fla., Sept 15 (Reuters) - The death toll from Hurricane Irma was at 82 early on Friday as 1.5 million homes and businesses in Florida remained without power in sweltering heat, five days after the historic storm ripped through southeast U.S.
NextEra Energy Inc’s (NEE.N) FPL, Florida’s biggest electric company, said on Friday about 1.1 million customers had no power, while Duke Energy Corp (DUK.N) reported that more than 371,000 customers were in the dark and Tampa Electric, a unit of Emera Inc (EMA.TO), reported about 39,000 were without power.
Irma, which had ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record before striking the U.S. mainland as a Category 4 hurricane on Sunday, has been blamed for at least 82 deaths, with several hard-hit Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, accounting for more than half the fatalities.
At least 32 deaths have been reported in Florida and seven more combined in Georgia and South Carolina. The death toll includes eight elderly patients who died after being exposed to sweltering heat inside a Miami-area nursing home left with little or no air conditioning after the hurricane struck.
The deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills stirred outrage at what many saw as a preventable tragedy, and heightened concerns about the vulnerability of the state’s large elderly population amid widespread, lingering power outages.
“It was unnecessary,” Bendetta Craig, whose 87-year-old mother was among dozens of patients safely removed from the center, told reporters on Thursday.
“I don’t know what happened inside. I wasn’t there. I hope the truth comes out. It is just senseless,” she said.
Police obtained a search warrant on Thursday in their criminal investigation into the deaths while Florida’s healthcare agency ordered a Miami-area nursing home suspended from the state Medicaid program.
High temperatures were forecast to reach the upper 80s Fahrenheit (low 30s Celsius) in Florida’s two biggest cities, Jacksonville and Miami, and the mid-80s F (around 30 C) in Atlanta over the next week or so, according to meteorologists at AccuWeather.
FPL, which serves nearly 5 million homes and businesses, said it expects to restore power to essentially all its users, in the eastern portion of Florida, by the end of the weekend and the harder-hit western portion of the state by Sept. 22.
Duke Energy Corp, which serves the northern and central parts of Florida, said on its website it expects to restore service to most customers by midnight Sept. 17.
Irma rampaged through the Caribbean, devastating several islands and raking the northern shore of Cuba last week before barreling into the Florida Keys island chain on Sunday with sustained winds of up to 130 miles per hour (215 km/h).
An estimated 20 percent of Florida’s gas stations had no fuel on Thursday, down from a peak of 46 percent, according to fuel information service Gas Buddy.
U.S. President Donald Trump visited Gulf Coast Florida communities recovering from the hurricane on Thursday, praising first-responders for their role in limiting the loss of life.
The U.S. Justice Department has received more than 400 fraud complaints involving relief aid after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and expects a spike in fraud complaints in the coming months, department officials said on Thursday.
Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington, Zachary Fagenson in Miami, Letitia Stein in Detroit, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Gina Cherelus, Jessica Resnick-Ault, Joseph Ax and Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Paul Tait and Toby Chopra