President Trump told Florida hurricane victims his administration is "there for you 100%" as officials moved urgently to safeguard the state's vulnerable elderly and restore power to millions of homes and businesses still without electricity.
The president and First Lady Melania Trump arrived aboard Air Force One in Fort Myers on the peninsula's southwestern Gulf coast, then traveled by helicopter to Naples, 40 miles away. It was Trump's third disaster-zone visit in less than three weeks.
In a Naples mobile home park, not far from where then-Hurricane Irma made its second landfall in Florida, Trump shook hands with residents, quizzed people about how they were faring and joined volunteers serving lunch.
"We love the people of Florida," he said, pledging that he would be back to monitor recovery progress. "We are there for you 100% … These are special, special people."
Earlier, he hailed his own administration's performance as well as that of state and local officials.
"I think we're doing a good job in Florida," Trump said in a brief question-and-answer session with reporters after landing in Fort Myers.
Addressing a group of rescue workers and officials assembled in an airport hangar, he paid special tribute to first responders and Florida Gov. Rick Scott. The governor, flanking him, in turn praised the White House and federal response.
"As you know, our state's been devastated," Scott said.
Florida's nascent restoration drive is projected to take months and cost billions of dollars, after the storm battered parts of the Florida Keys, triggered serious flooding in the northern part of the state and upended daily life in major cities and small towns in between.
The presidential visit to Florida comes a day after at least eight patients died in a sweltering nursing home in Hollywood, Fla., that was left with limited power after Irma pounded the region. On Thursday, the city's law enforcement was granted a search warrant in an ongoing investigation.
Raelin Storey, a spokeswoman for the city, said the facility had some power early Wednesday, but "the building's air-conditioning system was not fully functional."
Scott on Thursday directed the Agency for Health Care Administration to issue an emergency moratorium to prevent the facility in question from housing any patients.
Hot, humid conditions coupled with a lack of power have particularly imperiled Florida's large population of the elderly, and some preemptive evacuations were underway to protect nursing home residents.
Fire rescue teams removed 122 people from two assisted-living facilities near Orlando as a safety measure, a fire department spokeswoman said. In suburban Fort Lauderdale, residents of an assisted-living facility that lost power were moved to similar institutions close by that had electricity.
Statewide, nearly 2.7 million homes and businesses still lacked power, officials said Thursday. But both Trump and Scott pointed to progress in restoring the electrical grid.
Late Wednesday, Florida Power & Light reported that nearly 442,000 of its 1.1 million customers in Miami-Dade County were still without power. In nearby Broward County, 300,000 were without electricity, but repairs were moving ahead.
After initial stumbles in earlier disaster-zone visits and criticism over a perceived lack of empathy for those affected, Trump appeared more comfortable Thursday in the role of consoler-in-chief, tasked with the ceremonial duty of rallying flagging spirits in the hurricane zone.
Still, he raised some eyebrows by injecting politics into Thursday's visit, declaring in his arrival remarks that Scott, a Republican, should run for the Senate, challenging Democrat Bill Nelson. He also struck a somewhat odd note in announcing that he wanted to make sure storm-affected people were "happy."
As Florida struggled to revive its commercial and business life, school classes remained disrupted. Officials from the Miami-Dade Public School District said schools would remain closed the rest of the week because of power issues. In Naples, the Collier County Public School District remains closed and will not reopen until next week.
Since Irma made landfall Sunday, 31 people in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia have been killed in storm-related circumstances. At least 38 people were killed in the Caribbean, where the storm, then a much more powerful Category 5 hurricane, devastated a string of Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean.
Times staff writer Lee reported from Los Angeles, McDonnell from Naples and King from Washington.
11:10 a.m.: This article was updated with additional Trump quotes, his visit to a mobile home park and a search warrant issued in the nursing home where several deaths occurred.
9:05 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Trump, his departure for Naples and more nursing home evacuations.
8:05 a.m.: This article was updated with the president and first lady's arrival, more nursing home evacuations and other details.