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8 dead as Florida nursing home loses air conditioning for days after hurricane

  • Author: Mark Berman, The Washington Post
  • Updated: September 14, 2017
  • Published September 13, 2017

Residents of the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills are evacuated Wednesday morning. Reuters

The death toll left behind by Hurricane Irma continued to rise Wednesday, as eight people living at a South Florida nursing home that apparently was without air conditioning died amid ongoing power outages statewide.

Four people died at the The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, and four others were pronounced dead after being taken to a hospital, the city of Hollywood said Wednesday afternoon. Authorities evacuated more than 100 other people from the facility, they said, including bringing some to nearby hospitals.

Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said it was not immediately clear what caused the deaths at the nursing home, which is believed to have lost air conditioning after the storm.

"We're conducting a criminal investigation into the deaths that occurred here," Tomas Sanchez, the Hollywood police chief, said at a news briefing Wednesday. "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 anything out. He declined to say whether the electricity was entirely out at the facility or if only the air conditioning was out, saying that was still under investigation.

An employee told the Miami Herald that the facility had generator power for cooking but the air conditioning was out.

The rehabilitation center is located across the street from Memorial Regional Hospital, the flagship facility of the Memorial Healthcare System and one of the largest hospitals in the state. An official from Memorial said that the health care network was helping with evacuating people from the rehabilitation center, which is not part of the Memorial system, and will take some to their other hospitals in the region.

The facility's administrator did not return messages left by The Washington Post.

The nursing home had a history of poor inspection reports, The Herald reported. The facility's "overall rating," which includes staffing, fire safety and health inspections, was listed as "below average."

The home also has a relationship with Larkin Community Hospital, which has a long history of running afoul of health care regulators, the Herald reported.

At a news conference, Florida Power and Light said it serviced portions of the facility. Robert Gould, the utility's chief communications officer, said he understood that certain parts of the facility had power. He said Broward County did not list the facility as critical infrastructure – the places where restoring power is a top priority after a storm – in a hurricane planning meeting earlier this year.

"This facility was not listed as a top critical" by Broward County, Gould said.

"What we've seen is something extremely tragic that points to the need to having plans in advance when it comes to emergency preparation. I would be remiss if I didn't say our deepest sympathies goes out to the families of those (who) lost their lives," 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.

Florida's heat adds a perilous element to the ongoing outages. In Hollywood, where the nursing home is located, temperatures are expected to reach the 90s this week. The storm has presented risks and challenges for the elderly population in Florida, where about one in 5 residents are age 65 or older.

"As with millions of other Floridians, our centers are coping with the loss of power and infrastructure in the communities that were most affected by the devastation," the Florida Health Care Association said in a statement Wednesday. "Approximately 150 facilities out of the nearly 700 facilities in the state do not currently have full power services restored."

Earlier this week, a dangerous scene played out inside an assisted care facility for patients with dementia and memory impairment in Cape Coral, Florida, on the state's Gulf Coast. For three days, the facility lacked power, and for three days, elderly patients suffered in rising heat.

Humidity made the hard-surfaced floors slick with condensation, while patients gathered in a small day room to catch a slight breeze from screened windows. A handful of small fans powered by a borrowed generator were all that kept the situation from devolving into a medical emergency, said Dan Nelson, Cape Coral Shores' chief operating officer.

A state official eventually said they found a generator and gas, but it was not needed: The power turned back on.

The eight people who died Wednesday in South Florida were part of a death toll that, while relatively low compared to other massive storms, has slowly climbed in recent days. That toll also included two people in Georgia killed when trees fell on them and a man in Winter Park, Florida, near Orlando, apparently electrocuted by a downed power line in a roadway.

Officials were investigating a number of deaths believed to be related to the storm, though it was not clear whether Irma was directly responsible in every case. The Associated Press reported that before the deaths at the Hollywood nursing home, Irma was blamed for a combined 19 fatalities in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Even as Irma dissipated and moved inland, another danger emerged for those without power: generators. Authorities have warned that these devices can be deadly, noting they can easily sicken or kill people inside homes.

The Daytona Beach Fire Department said Wednesday morning that one person was dead and three others taken to a hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator inside a home there, and the department pleaded with people to keep their generators outside.

All across Florida and the American southeast, people have grappled with the aftermath of Irma, which slammed into the Sunshine State over the weekend and tore apart trees and buildings with slashing winds and pounding rain. Jacksonville, a sprawling city on the state's northeast coast, was deluged with historic flooding.

More than 6 million people were evacuated from their homes in Florida, and they have slowly begun to return, even as roadways remain littered with debris, homes lack electricity and traffic signals have gone dark.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said about half of the county's traffic signals were out. Sharief, the Broward County mayor, has said the number was closer to 45 percent of traffic signals there.

Across the state, the explanations for the outages were visible alongside the road.

"It's a lot of trees and power lines and snapped poles," said Kate Albers, a spokeswoman for Collier County, which stretches across southwestern Florida and includes Marco Island, where Irma made her second landfall.

"I can tell you from driving around you see lines down all over the place," Albers said. "You see trees thrown through power lines and you'll see an occasional pole."

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