Post-Irma nursing home tragedy sets off alarms across Florida

Last Updated Sep 14, 2017 3:48 PM EDT

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- Florida warily eyed the fate of its most vulnerable residents and emergency workers were urged to immediately check on those in nursing homes after eight people died in a scorching facility that lost its air conditioning in Hurricane Irma.

The deaths raised fears about the safety of Florida's 4 million senior citizens amid widespread post-Irma power outages that could last for days.

Even in the face of a storm that shrouded nearly the entire state and had officials still piecing together its destruction, the news Wednesday from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills stood out, with victims as old as 99 among the dead and worries the count could grow.

"Unfathomable," Gov. Rick Scott said. "Inexcusable," Sen. Bill Nelson added.

Scott vowed to punish anyone found culpable in the deaths. Nelson demanded a federal investigation.

"This is a tragic event, the senseless loss of these eight individuals' lives," Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez said on "CBS This Morning" Thursday.

Sanchez said he sent officers to all 42 nursing homes in the area Wednesday. They found one that had insufficient power and evacuated it. Five patients were taken to a hospital.

"It was very hot inside as was the nursing home here that we're investigating," Sanchez said.

Alarms were sounded for older residents elsewhere in South Florida.

In Coral Gables, an apartment building was evacuated after authorities said its lack of power made it unsafe for elderly tenants. And at the huge, 15,000-resident Century Village retirement community in Pembroke Pines, where there were also widespread outages, rescue workers went door to door in the 94-degree heat checking on residents and bringing ice, water and meals.

Though the number of people with electricity had drastically improved from earlier in the week, millions of homes and businesses across the peninsula continued to wait for power, and utility officials warned it could take a week or more for all areas to be back up and running.

In Hollywood, the Rehabilitation Center said the hurricane had knocked out a transformer that powered the air conditioning. Broward County said the home alerted officials Tuesday that it had lost power, but when asked if it had any medical needs or emergencies, it didn't request help.

Early Wednesday morning, after responding to three calls about patients there in distress, firefighters went through the facility and found three people dead and evacuated more than 150 patients to hospitals, many on stretchers or in wheelchairs, authorities said.

By the afternoon, five more had died. Others were treated for dehydration, breathing difficulties and other heat-related problems.

"It's a sad state of affairs," said Sanchez, who said investigators believe the deaths at the Rehabilitation Center were heat-related and said the building has been sealed off and a criminal investigation was underway. The chief said authorities haven't ruled anything out in the deaths, including carbon monoxide poisoning from generators. He also said investigators will look into how many windows were open.

Across the street from the stifling nursing home sits a fully air-conditioned hospital, Memorial Regional.

The nursing home's administrator, Jorge Carballo, said in a statement Wednesday evening that it was "cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome."

The governor announced in a news release Wednesday night that he's directed the Agency for Health Care Administration to issue an emergency moratorium for the facility, preventing it from admitting new patients indefinitely.

Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy noted on "CBS This Morning" Thursday that gas stations in Florida are required by law to have backup generators. He expected the state legislature to look at nursing homes in its upcoming session.

"This needs to be looked at right away by our state and the regulating agencies, and action needs to be taken," Levy said. "I think this makes it more clear than ever."

The nursing home has a poor record with regulators and is ranked as "much below average," with one-out-of-five stars on a federal nursing home ranking website.

Carmen Fernandez, who's married to the cousin of one of those who died, 99-year-old Albertina Vega, told CBS Miami she often took care of Vega in the facility. "They had no air conditioning there; how do they have those old people having problem breathing?" Fernandez wondered.

Fernandez said she would certainly have  brought Vega to her apartment, which had air conditioning, but was never called by the center.

Glendale Owens, the daughter of one of the men who died, said she last visited her father in the nursing home Monday and everything seemed fine. She said Bobby Owens had been at the facility for more than 10 years.

"People are telling me different things," she said Wednesday evening. "But nobody from the facility has told me anything yet."

Paulburn Bogle, a member of the housekeeping staff, said after the air conditioning failed, the staff used fans, put cold towels and ice on patients and gave them cold drinks. The medical examiner's office said the victims were five women and three men, ages 70 to 99.

Nursing homes in Florida are required by law to file an emergency plan that includes evacuation plans for residents. County officials released documents showing that the Hollywood facility was in compliance with that regulation and that it held a hurricane drill with its staff in October.