Irma aftermath: 8 die in sweltering South Florida nursing home

Criminal probe launches as hospitals take in 155 nursing home residents

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Gazette wires

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Police opened a criminal investigation Wednesday into the deaths of at least eight people at a South Florida nursing home that apparently was without air conditioning amid power outages from Hurricane Irma, according to local officials.

Three people died at the facility in Hollywood, Fla., and three others were pronounced dead after being taken to a hospital, said officials in the city between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Two other deaths were reported later Wednesday afternoon.

Authorities evacuated more than 100 other people from the facility, the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, including bringing some to nearby hospitals.

“We’re conducting a criminal investigation into the deaths that occurred here,” said Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez at a news briefing. “It’s a sad event.”

Sanchez said that officials believe the situation at the nursing home “may be related to the loss of power” caused by Irma, but said they were not ruling out anything. He declined to say whether the electricity was entirely out at the facility or if only the air conditioning was out.

“The initial investigation has determined that the facility’s air conditioning system was not fully functional,” Hollywood city officials said in a statement. “Portable (air-conditioning) units were being used in the facility, but the facility was excessively hot.”

The rehabilitation center is across the street from Memorial Regional Hospital, one of the largest hospitals in the state. An official from Memorial said the health care network that includes the hospital was helping evacuate people from the rehabilitation center, which is not part of the Memorial system, and would take some to other hospitals in the region.

HOME ‘below average’

The nursing home had a history of poor inspections and citations. It is rated “below average” on the Medicare website, which evaluates facilities based on performance in inspections, staffing and quality measures.

The facility’s administrator, Jorge Carballo, said in a statement obtained by the Miami Herald that the center “evacuated this morning due to a prolonged power failure to the transformer which powered the facility’s air conditioning system as a result of the hurricane. Unfortunately, early this morning several patients experienced distress and there were three fatalities at the facility and three at the hospital they were transferred to.”

Randy Katz, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at Memorial Regional Hospital, said fire and rescue crews received a call early Wednesday about a patient in distress at the rehabilitation facility.

A nurse from Memorial Regional walked over to the center around 6 a.m. and decided it was in the best interest of the patients to get them out.

“There was no air conditioning,” Katz said. “The temperatures, particularly on the second floor, were extremely hot. ... There were a number of patients who looked like they were in distress.”

Katz said hospital staff went room to room in the facility, locating patients and evacuating the building. It is treating 115 patients at various hospitals, mainly for dehydration, respiratory issues including respiratory failure, heat exhaustion and high fevers.

“There’s no reason patients that age with chronic medical issues should be in a facility without air conditioning,” Katz said.

‘TRAGIC EVENT’

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, a former hospital chief executive, said in a statement the situation is “unfathomable.”

“I am going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place,” Scott said.

Scott said he directed two state agencies to work with local authorities on the investigation, and he warned that “if they find that anyone wasn’t acting in the best interests of their patients, we will hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

Scott said the facility had reported Tuesday afternoon that it had power and access to fans and spot coolers.

At a news conference, Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility, said it serviced portions of the care facility.

Robert Gould, the utility’s chief communications officer, said Broward County did not list the facility as critical infrastructure — the places where restoring power is a top priority — in a hurricane planning meeting earlier this year.

“This facility was not listed as a top critical,” Gould said.

Millions of people across Florida have lost power since Irma began lashing the state, and utilities have warned that some of the outages could extend for days or even weeks. This has cut off air conditioning for scores of Floridians, and it poses an acute danger for the particularly young or old in a state known for its sweltering temperatures.

DEATH TOLL CLIMBS

The storm has presented risks and challenges for the elderly population in Florida, where about 1 in 5 residents are 65 or older.

Those who died Wednesday in South Florida were part of a death toll that, while relatively low compared with other massive storms, has slowly climbed in recent days.

The Associated Press reported that before the deaths at the nursing home, Irma was blamed for a combined 19 fatalities in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

In Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, officials said there were eight deaths “due to or during Hurricane Irma” — though they cautioned some were of natural causes.

Door-to-door search and rescue efforts in the Keys so far have not turned up any new casualties. Key West still is isolated from the mainland, as crews continue to test bridges, clear roads and restore power and water.

The Washington Post and the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida contributed to this report.

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