Updated: 1:38 p.m. | Posted: 5:52 a.m.
Florida seniors shuffled out of stifling assisted-living centers Thursday while caregivers fought a lack of air conditioning with Popsicles and cool compresses after eight people died at a nursing home in the post-hurricane heat.
Dozens of the state's senior centers still lacked electricity days after Hurricane Irma hit the state, and several facilities were forced to evacuate. While detectives sought clues to the deaths, emergency workers went door to door to look for anyone else who was at risk.
In one of the latest actions to protect older people, 57 residents were moved from a suburban Fort Lauderdale assisted-living facility without power to two nearby homes where power was just restored. Owner Ralph Marrinson said all five of his Florida facilities lost electricity after Irma. Workers scrambled to keep patients cool with emergency stocks of ice and Popsicles.
"FPL has got to have a better plan for power," he said, referring to the state's largest utility, Florida Power & Light. "We're supposed to be on a priority list, and it doesn't come and it doesn't come and frankly it's very scary."
Stepped-up safety checks around the state came after eight deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which shocked Florida's top leaders as they surveyed destruction from the punishing storm.
Statewide, 64 nursing homes were still waiting Thursday for full power, according to the Florida Health Care Association. The separate Florida Assisted Living Association said many of its South Florida members lacked electricity. The group was working on a precise count.
Near Orlando, firefighters helped relocate 122 people late Wednesday from two assisted-living centers that had been without power since the storm. And at the 15,000-resident Century Village retirement community in Pembroke Pines, where there were also widespread outages, rescue workers went door to door to check on residents and bring ice, water and meals.
For older people living on their own, such as 94-year-old Mary Dellaratta, getting help can depend on the attentiveness of neighbors, family and local authorities. The widow evacuated her Naples condominium with the help of police the day before the hurricane. After the storm passed, a deputy took her back home and another brought her food. A deacon from her Roman Catholic church also stopped by.
But with no family in the area and neighbors who are gone or unwilling to help, the New York native feels cut off from the world.
"I have nobody," she said.
The electricity is out in her condo, so there's no television for news. She cannot raise the electric-powered hurricane shutters that cover her kitchen windows. Near the point of despair, remembering to take her medicine or locating her cane are almost insurmountable challenges. "I don't know what to do. How am I going to last here?" she said, as a tear rolled down her cheek.
Though the number of people with electricity has improved from earlier in the week, some 4.9 million people across the peninsula continued to wait for power. Utility officials warned it could take a week or more for all areas to be back up and running.
Including the nursing home deaths, at least 26 people in Florida have died under Irma-related circumstances, and six more in South Carolina and Georgia, many of them well after the storm passed. The death toll across the Caribbean stood at 38.
On Thursday, detectives were at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills after receiving a search warrant to investigate the eight patients' deaths, which police believed were heat-related.
The center said the hurricane knocked out a transformer that powered the air conditioning. Broward County said the home alerted officials about the situation on Tuesday, but when asked if it had any medical needs or emergencies, it did not request help.
But by early Wednesday, the center had placed three calls to report patients in distress, prompting firefighters to search the facility. They found three people dead and evacuated 145 people to hospitals, many on stretchers or in wheelchairs, authorities said. By that afternoon, five more had died.
The facility's administrator, Jorge Carballo, said in a statement that it was cooperating fully with authorities. Reached by phone on Thursday, Rosemary Cooper, a licensed practical nurse at the rehabilitation center, declined to discuss specifics about the case, citing the investigation.
"The people who were working there worked hard to make a good outcome for our patients," she said. "We cared for them like family."
Nursing homes in Florida are required by law to file an emergency plan that includes evacuation plans. County officials released documents showing that the Hollywood facility was in compliance with that regulation and that it held a hurricane drill with its staff in October. State law also requires nursing homes to maintain a temperature of 81 degrees or cooler.
At another assisted-living facility near Miami, the manager said the building lost power Tuesday morning, well after the hurricane had passed. Residents had been temporarily evacuated when the storm lashed South Florida, but they came back around the time the electricity went out.
Anne Richards, who manages Sunny Hills Assisted Living Community in Homestead, said she is asking relatives of the facility's 97 elderly residents if they can come take their loved ones someplace cooler. Temperatures were in the high 80s Wednesday and Thursday.
Resident Barbara Bernstein, 83, said it's difficult to walk in the dark to the restroom using a flashlight, but most of all, she wants air conditioning back.
"It's very, very hot here," she said. "And there are so many older people here with different physical problems that I think they should make this a priority to get the power back."