WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — President Donald Trump met with federal and state leaders in Florida on Thursday as he surveyed damage from Hurricane Irma and praised the rapid response of the recovery effort.
“We have been very, very fast and we had to be,” Trump said at an airport hangar where he was joined by Vice President Mike Pence, Gov. Rick Scott and other leaders.
The president said his administration is “trying to keep them as happy as we can under the circumstances. In many cases, they’ve lost their homes and it’s a tough situation.”
For Trump, the visit to Fort Myers and Naples along Florida’s battered southwestern coast offered him the chance to see how people were coping and how the Federal Emergency Management Agency was responding.
“We’ve seen the devastation,” the president said. “We’re gonna see some more of it now, unfortunately.”
He thanked first responders, joking that he doesn’t “want to see you next week in another place.” Earlier this month, the president visited with victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
“We’ve seen you enough,” Trump said. “But I just want to thank everybody.”
“People thought thousands and thousands of people may have their lives ended, and number is a very small number, which is a great tribute to you,” he added.
Nearly half of Florida was engulfed by Irma, which left flooded streets, damaged homes and displaced residents in its wake. The Keys felt Irma’s full fury when the hurricane roared in after wreaking devastation in the Caribbean, but the extent of the damage has been an unanswered question because some places have been unreachable.
In Lee County, which includes Cape Coral and Fort Myers, the Florida Emergency Management Agency said 66 percent of the area’s 290,000 electrical customers were still without power Wednesday. Widespread outages led to long lines outside of the relatively few stores, gas stations and restaurants that had reopened.
With more than 20,000 utility workers statewide, power companies said they are making progress — faster than in previous hurricanes. But there is still work to be done.
“We have restored many of the big blocks of customers and we’re going into neighborhoods and, in some cases, going house-to-house,” Florida Power and Light Spokesperson Brian Garner said.
The situation was even worse to the south in Collier County, where Naples is located. Days after Irma passed, almost 80 percent of homes and businesses were still without electricity there, and floodwaters still covered some communities entirely.
On Wednesday, Scott visited Key West, where neighborhoods were destroyed.
“Everything we’re trying to do is all tied to power and so, we gotta keep getting these tankers in and get fuel everywhere around the state,” Scott said. “But we gotta get people their power back.”
Power, running water and communications have been virtually nonexistent in the Keys since Sunday. Officials say full recovery could take years.
As of Thursday morning, the number of homes and businesses without electricity in Florida was 2.69 million, according to the agency. That’s 25.6 percent of all customers in the state.
Utility officials warned it could take 10 days or more for power to be fully restored. The number of people remaining in shelters fell to under 13,000.
Meanwhile, a criminal investigation is now underway following the deaths of eight patients at a sweltering nursing home after Irma knocked out the air conditioning.
“I think it is an emerging scandal of gargantuan proportions,” said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.
Hollywood Police Chief Tom Sanchez said investigators believe the deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills were heat-related.
“The building has been sealed off and we are conducting a criminal investigation,” he said.
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.
The home said in a statement that the hurricane had knocked out a transformer that powered the AC.
Broward County said the nursing home had alerted the county emergency operations center on Tuesday that it had lost power, but when asked if it had any medical needs or emergencies, it did not request help.
After responding to three early morning calls Wednesday about patients in distress, firefighters went through the facility, found three people dead and evacuated more than 150 patients to hospitals, many on stretchers or in wheelchairs, authorities said. By the afternoon, five more had died.
Patients were treated for dehydration, breathing difficulties and other heat-related ills, authorities said.
The dead include five women and three men who ranged in age from 70 to 99.
Across the street from the stifling nursing home sat a fully air-conditioned hospital, Memorial Regional. Carmen Fernandez’s relative was one of the seniors who died.
“They have no air condition in there,” she said “How they have those people, old people?”
Scott called on Florida emergency workers to immediately check on all nursing homes to make sure patients are safe, and he vowed to punish anyone found culpable in the deaths.
Not counting the nursing home deaths, at least 17 people in Florida have died under Irma-related circumstances, and six more in South Carolina and Georgia, many of them well after the storm had passed. The death toll across the Caribbean stood at 38.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)