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One Year Since Tragedy At Rehabilitation Center At Hollywood Hills & Families Still Demand Justice

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HOLLYWOOD (CBSMiami) – It's been one year since a Hollywood nursing home slowly turned into a death trap in the days after Hurricane Irma.

Family members who lost loved ones are still looking for clarity about the disaster.

For Margarita Navarro, it feels like time has barely moved since her father, Miguel, died at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

"To think that it's already a year but we think it was only yesterday that this happened," she said.

Miguel died last September 13th after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to the air condition at the facility. His wife, Cecilia, died a few weeks later.

The family is suing Hollywood Hills and Florida Power and Light and they believe those responsible for the deaths should face criminal charges.

"We need those people to pay for what happened," Navarro said. "Not only for our parents but for all those people that died that day."

Her brother, Pedro Franco, said he's willing to be patient as police and prosecutors continue to investigate the case but he is demanding accountability. The Broward County Medical Examiner's Office ruled homicide as the case of death in 12 cases.

"I want them to feel 1 percent of what these people went through," Franco said. "So, jail would be something that would be reasonable for us."

The tragedy that began last September 13 grabbed national headlines as the air conditioning went out for several days and patients started deteriorating and dying. Cellphone video revealed the conditions inside the facility as fans blew on patients and another patient sat slumped over in a wheelchair. The temperatures of some patients soared to as high 109 degrees.

911 calls revealed the drama unfolding.

"We don't have any air condition," a Hollywood Hills employee told a 911 operator. "I saw (a woman) slouch over. I realized she's not breathing."

It was later learned that Hollywood Hills employees called 911, FPL and state hotlines, including the cellphone of Governor Rick Scott to report the crisis. Employees told CBS 4 News that they did their best to care for the patients.

"Everybody was working for the patients and just keeping them comfortable," said an employee who requested anonymity.

But the big question was why didn't the employees take the sick and dying patients to Memorial Regional Hospital right next door?

After the crisis, the state suspended the license of Hollywood Hills and the owners are waiting to see if they can get their license back.

Attorneys for Hollywood Hills are arguing that employees followed protocol, repeatedly reached out for help and wanted to avoid the risk of moving elderly or compromised patients.

In a statement, attorneys for the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills told CBS 4 News, "To  prevent future tragedies stemming from natural disasters, it is the hope of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills that electrical power companies and the regulatory system will ensure that nursing homes be given priority in restoration of power when AC is lost due to a storm."

Attorneys Julie Allison and Geoffrey D. Smith added, "The staff at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills sheltered in with their residents and left their families to go to work and take care of their residents during a major hurricane emergency and we believe they will be vindicated. Rather than turning healthcare providers into scapegoats, we should heed the fact that there are no national guidelines for nursing homes on how to address prolonged power outages in the aftermath of natural disasters."

But attorney Albert Levin, who is representing the family of Miguel and Cecilia Franco, said the employees at Hollywood Hills simply didn't do enough to protect the Franco's and the other patients who died.

"People basically failed to act, not for a day but for 3 days," Levin told CBS 4 News.

Levin's civil case is one of more than 30 civil cases brought against Hollywood Hills.

FPL is also being named in the lawsuits and attorneys for the utility have argued that FPL should not be held accountable for "an act of God."

An FPL spokesperson had no comment on the lawsuits.

Levin said that the sheer volume of cases and attorneys is making it challenging to get these cases into a courtroom.

The tragedy at Hollywood Hills also spurred changes in Florida law.

Legislators mandated that nursing homes and assisted living facilities have backup power in place should a power outage occur.

According to the Agency for Healthcare Administration most facilities do or soon will. In Broward, 108 facilities have a backup generator in place and another 182 promised to have it in place by January 1.

In Miami-Dade and Monroe, 676 facilities have backup generators and another 166 are expected to by the beginning of next year.

In order to get an extension to add the generator, a facility needed to submit a plan detailing what they would do to protect residents in the event of a crisis.

The backup generator is supposed to provide enough power to maintain a temperature of 81 degrees for 96 hours and facilities that do not adhere to the new law will face fines and sanctions.

"Florida has some of the strictest standards, if not the most strict standards with regards to emergency power in the nation," AHCA Secretary Justin Senior said in a statement. "We are fully committed to holding our facilities accountable to these high standards. We recognize that this is an aggressive timeline for implementation, and our Agency has seen a lot of progress from the facilities in working to implement these emergency rules. Not only are facilities working to come into compliance, but in many cases they have gone above what the rule requires with regard to cooling the facility, and many facilities are working to install generators that would cool the entire facility."

Pedro Franco is pleased about the legislation and hopes that it prevents a similar tragedy.

However, it does not bring back his parents or mitigate his grief. He said the thoughts of his father's last moments swirl around in his head.

"What my father's thoughts were during the last moments of his life — 'Did my kids abandon me?'" he wonders. "For me, it's been very painful."

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