8 dead at Florida nursing home where Irma knocked out power

Last Updated Sep 14, 2017 4:12 AM EDT

Eight patients at a Florida nursing home who spent days in sweltering heat died after Hurricane Irma knocked out their air conditioning.

Fire rescue crews and police responded to the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, Florida, early Wednesday morning after receiving calls of patients in distress. Hollywood police chief Tomas Sanchez said at a press conference that officers found "extremely hot" temperatures on the second floor. First responders ordered the nursing home evacuated.

The nursing home had been without air conditioning since Irma knocked out electricity to the area.

"What has happened here is inexcusable," Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Wednesday. "These kind of facilities should be regulated with a strong, tight rein ... and it hasn't happened."

Nelson spoke to the secretary of Health and Human Services and urged that an investigation be opened.

Three patients died at the nursing home, and three others died Wednesday morning shortly after being transported to local hospitals. The Broward County Medical Examiner announced the deaths of two more patients Wednesday afternoon.

"People are just absolutely shocked that someone in the staff would not know enough that a frail, elderly person is dying of heat exhaustion and would at least know to dial 911 ... this is what is inexcusable," Nelson said. "There will be an investigation here and we will get to the bottom of it."

The facility's administrator, Jorge Carbollo, issued a statement Wednesday night saying, "The Center and its medical and administrative staff diligently prepared for the impact of Hurricane Irma.  We took part in emergency management preparedness calls with local and state emergency officials, other nursing homes and health regulators.  While our Center did not lose power during the storm, it did lose one transformer that powers the air conditioning unit. The Center immediately contacted Florida Power & Light and continued to follow up with them for status updates on when repairs would be made. Outreach was also made to local emergency officials and first responders.

"In compliance with state regulations, the Center did have a generator on standby in the event it would be needed to power life safety systems. The Center also had seven days of food, water, ice and other supplies, including gas for the generator. Additionally, when the transformer powering the A/C went down, staff set up mobile cooling units and fans to cool the facility. Our staff continually checked on our residents' well-being—our most important concern—to ensure they were hydrated and as comfortable as possible.

"We are devastated by these losses. We are fully cooperating with all authorities and regulators to assess what went wrong and to ensure our other residents are cared for."

Hurricane Irma

Police officers talk to an employee at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, Florida, on Wed., Sept. 13, 2017.

AP

The eight victims ranged in age from 70 to 99. The were identified by the Broward County medical examiner as Gail Nova, 70; Estella Hendricks, 71; Carolyn Eatherly, 78; Betty Hibbard, 84; Bobby Owens, 84; Miguel Antonio Franco, 92; Manuel Mario Medieta, 96; and Albertina Vega, 99.

The evacuation included 115 patients from the nursing home and 18 from a nearby behavioral facility. The patients were transported to area hospitals, including Memorial Regional Hospital across the street.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he was "absolutely heartbroken" over the deaths, calling the situation "unfathomable." Scott said he was directing state agencies to worth with local law enforcement to investigate the incident.

"If they find that anyone wasn't acting in the best interests of the patients, we will hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law," Scott said in a statement.

He also directed Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration to issue an emergency moratorium keeping the center from anymore patients until the moratorium is lifted.  

The manager of the nursing home has a history of health-care fraud accusations. Federal court records show the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami filed civil charges in 2004 against Dr. Jack Michel, several other individuals, and several businesses, including Larkin Health Systems. Larkin Health Systems owns The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

In 1997, before Michel owned Larkin, federal prosecutors say he and others participated in a kickback scheme that involved paying doctors for referrals and admission to Larkin Community Hospital. Prosecutors say that after he bought the hospital in 1998, Michel and others fraudulently increased the number of patients at the facility, along with their Medicare and Medicaid revenues, by bringing in patients from nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

The case was settled in 2006 for $15.4 million.

Aerial footage showed patients sitting outside in wheelchairs and others being taken out of the facility on stretchers.

Dr. Randy Katz, the medical director of Memorial's emergency department, said at least a dozen patients remain in the emergency room.

"Most of the patients have been treated to respiratory distress, dehydration, heat-related issues," Katz said.

Sanchez said police have opened a criminal investigation into the deaths.

Sanchez said that officers and fire crews responded Wednesday morning to a call from the facility about some patients in need of critical care. Police officers are conducting welfare checks at 42 other nursing home and assisted living facilities across Hollywood.

Josh Levy, the mayor of Hollywood, said he urged mayors and county commissioners across the state to urge residents to check on elderly neighbors in their communities. He said 32,000 homes and businesses in Hollywood were still without power.

At least 32 people have died as a result of Irma in the U.S. There have been at least 43 deaths in the Caribbean.

Residents struggling to put their lives back together have fallen victim to new hazards, including oppressive heat, brush-clearing accidents, house fires and deadly fumes from generators.

One person was found dead and three others were taken to the hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning in Daytona Beach, caused by fumes from a gas generator.

Power outages continue to plague the state, with 4.4 million customers still without power as of Wednesday morning, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management. More than 21,000 people remain in shelters across the state.  

In the Miami area, a Coral Gables apartment building was evacuated after authorities determined a lack of power made it unsafe for elderly tenants, while officers arrived at the huge Century Village retirement community in Pembroke Pines to help people on upper floors without access to working elevators. More than half the community of 15,000 residents lacked power.