By James Oliphant
FORT MYERS, Fla. (Reuters) - Police obtained a search warrant on Thursday in their criminal investigation of the deaths of eight elderly patients exposed to sweltering heat inside a Miami-area nursing home left with little or no air conditioning after Hurricane Irma struck.
The loss of life in Hollywood, Florida, brought the overall death toll from Irma to 82, with several hard-hit Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, accounting for more than half the fatalities.
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 32 deaths in Florida, plus seven more combined in Georgia and South Carolina.
On Thursday, one of the latest deaths reported involved cleanup crews in Coconut Grove, Florida, finding the body of a man under a pile of seaweed in a boat, a local ABC affiliate reported.
The eight deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, days after Irma struck, 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.
The facility is one of nearly 700 nursing homes across the state, about 150 of which still lacked power on Wednesday morning when the Hollywood Hills crisis occurred, according to the Florida Health Care Association.
Police, assisted in their investigation by state and federal regulators, have said little about circumstances leading to the deaths of the patients, who ranged in age from 71 to 99.
At Thursday's news conference, medical workers from an adjacent hospital who assisted in evacuating the center recounted a scene of chaos and stifling conditions as panicky staff scrambled to move overheated patients into a room where fans were blowing.
Facing an untenable situation, doctors and fire officials ultimately decided to transfer all the patients to the hospital, where dozens were treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and heat exhaustion, officials said.
Of the 141 patients who were evacuated, 70 were discharged from the hospital by Thursday, city officials said.
Craig said nursing home staff had assured her before the storm that they were prepared to shelter residents safely through the hurricane and were equipped with generators, food and other necessary supplies.
She questioned whether short staffing and fatigue on the part of overworked personnel may have been factors in the crisis.
Attempts by Reuters to reach representatives of the for-profit nursing home by phone and email went unanswered.
The center, which police sealed off as a crime scene on Wednesday, was officially ordered closed to new admissions by the state's Agency for Health Care Administration.
On Thursday, the agency suspended the facility from participation in the state-federal Medicaid program.
The facility has had a spotty inspection record, earning a "below average" grade Medicare's nursing home rating system. The state health care agency listed the center as among the lowest-ranked 20 percent of all nursing homes in Broward County.
A state inspection report in February 2016 cited the facility for failing to comply with regulations for emergency generators. There was no indication from state records of follow-up action on the issue, and no such deficiency was cited in a fire-life safety inspection conducted a few months ago.
The physician listed in state records as the nursing home's manager, Dr. Jack Michel, was accused by state and federal regulators in 2004 of defrauding Medicare and Medicaid. He and three co-defendants, including Larkin Community Hospital, paid $15.4 million to settle those civil claims in 2006 without admitting wrongdoing.
Michel is also majority owner of Larkin, which acquired the Hollywood Hills nursing home in bankruptcy proceedings in 2015.
VISIT BY TRUMP
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.
"When you think of the incredible power of that storm, and while people unfortunately passed, it was such a small number," Trump said. "People thought thousands and thousands of people may have their lives ended and the number is a very small number, which is a great tribute to you."
Florida officials, including Governor Rick Scott and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, greeted Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in Fort Myers, Florida.
The president, wearing a white baseball cap with "USA" written on it, later visited Naples, where he handed out sandwiches to residents under a blue shade pavilion.
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).
Some 2.8 million homes and businesses remained without electricity in Florida and neighboring states on Thursday.
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.
(This story has been refiled to correct first bullet point to show 82 deaths not 81, no change to text)
(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 Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)