Days after Hurricane Irma tore through Florida and left millions without power, residents are slowly returning to find ruins in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods.
Recovery is only getting started, and some areas remain flooded. Utility companies are working to restore power to the battered Florida Keys as frustrated evacuees emerge from shelters ready to go home.
About 2.7 million utility customers are still without power in the state Thursday, officials said. Parts of central and southern Florida will be a sweltering 90 degrees for several days, with humidity making it feel like the mid-90s.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged first responders to check health care facilities after eight patients died at a nursing home with an air conditioning outage three days after Irma ravaged the state.
As Floridians pick through Irma’s ruins, President Donald Trump is traveling to the state Thursday to view damage and get updates on recovery efforts from state and local authorities.
Relief is days away for those suffering the high temperatures. People on the west coast, where Hurricane Irma made landfall, will likely have power restored by September 22, according to Florida Power & Light Co.
Customers who lost electricity on Florida’s eastern side will likely have it restored by the weekend because fewer electrical poles came down than in other parts of the state, the company said.
Hurricane Irma’s furious march through Florida not only darkened millions of homes, it also flooded roads and piled them with debris, blocking off access to neighborhoods.
Massive power outages have crippled other states, including Georgia, where more than 290,000 homes and businesses organizations did not have power Thursday.
‘I didn’t think it would be that bad’
Jessica Gonzalez is back in her Florida neighborhood of LaBelle, but the heat is keeping her outdoors.
Her home was damaged by the storm and has no power. She celebrated her 20th birthday this week by waking up in her car with her husband and 2-year-old daughter.
They cook outside and sleep in their car.
“I honestly didn’t think it would be that bad. You hear a lot it’s Category 5, but you really don’t think it’s going to hit your house,” Gonzalez told CNN’s Ed Lavandera, referring to Irma’s strength in the Caribbean before the storm set its sights on Florida.
With no power and their house caving in, fellow LaBelle residents Bob and Tara Hahn have moved their 10 children into their oldest daughter’s two-bedroom house.
During the storm, a giant tree crashed into their home, sending whipping rain pouring inside. There are no answers on when the power will be back.
Officials told them it’ll take weeks, they said. As they wait, they have 17 people living under one roof.
‘There’s nothing here’
Frustrations grew Wednesday when some residents tried to go home along a two-lane stretch of highway through the Florida Keys, but were told it’s not safe enough to return home.
In Big Pine Key, houses were reduced to splinters. Boats were scattered across land — a reminder that streets turned into rivers when the hurricane hit.
Richard Tabacco stayed with his family on the island through the storm. They are all OK — a generator is keeping them cool, he said. But he warns people who evacuated to stay away.
“There’s nothing here,” he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo, who accompanied a 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,” he added.
Still, anxious residents wanted to return.
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, many pulled their cars over to the side of the highway, sat and waited.
A deputy at the checkpoint said authorities were trying to keep people safe, but some residents said they knew the risks and were willing to accept them.
Many wanted to survey the damage; others wanted to prevent looting.
At least 33 storm-related deaths have been reported on the US mainland, according to local officials. They include 26 in Florida, four in South Carolina and three in Georgia. The total number doesn’t include the nursing home deaths, which police said are under investigation.
The nursing home deaths Wednesday in Hollywood prompted officials to call for action. Florida has the largest percentage of residents age 65 or older — 19.1%, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I’m going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place,” the governor 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.”
Before the hurricane smashed into the US mainland over the weekend, it struck northern Caribbean islands, leaving at least 44 people dead, authorities said.
Irma, which stretched 650 miles from east to west, has pummeled at least nine states — deluging streets, knocking over trees and destroying homes along the way.