Sep 14, 2017, 3:17 AM ET

8 dead after Irma knocks out air conditioning at Florida nursing home

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Eight people have died after Hurricane Irma knocked out air conditioning at a nursing home in Hollywood, Florida, police said.

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While the cause of death was not immediately clear, the facility, Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, evacuated all its residents to hospitals because of the cooling problem.

Most of the deceased were treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and heat-related issues, officials said. Their ages ranged from 71 to 99, the Hollywood Police Department said at a news conference this evening.

Hollywood Fire Rescue crews responded to a call at about 3 a.m. today for a patient who was reported to be in cardiac arrest, and the patient was transported to a hospital, police said.

At 4 a.m., firefighters were sent back to the facility to transport a patient reported to be experiencing breathing problems, police said. After the second call, fire officials called the state Department of Children and Families to report concerns about the facility.

A third call later came in as well, police said. After fire rescue crews arrived, three patients were found dead on the second floor of the nursing home, and several other patients were found to be in "varying degrees of medical distress," authorities said.

Of the eight deaths, seven occurred today, and one Tuesday night.

All remaining patients were removed from the center by 9:15 a.m., after additional rescue units were called in and a complete evacuation of the facility was ordered, police said.

PHOTO: Hurricane Irma knocks out air conditioning at the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, Fla.WPLG
Hurricane Irma knocks out air conditioning at the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills in Hollywood, Fla.

Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief tonight said the center had contacted the county’s Emergency Operations Center Tuesday morning to alert the health and medical team that it had lost power. The incident was then reported as a “mission-critical request” to Florida Power & Light for power restoration.

Later that day, the center said it had done a survey of the property and that a tree had landed on a transformer, Sharief said. When asked by emergency workers whether they had any medical needs or emergencies, center officials “did not request assistance or indicate any medical emergency existed,” Sharief said.

Officials said 18 additional patients from an adjoining facility were also relocated because of the investigation, although those patients were "not medically compromised."

Dr. Randy Katz, director of emergency services at Memorial Regional Hospital, which is next to the nursing home but is not affiliated with it, said there were extremely high temperatures on the nursing home's second floor.

A person handling air conditioning for the facility told ABC Fort Lauderdale affiliate WPLG-TV that a fuse was damaged during Irma, resulting in cooling issues for the past few days. The facility itself has power, the individual said.

Nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said in a statement that the facility was 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," followed by other fatalities at "the hospital they were transferred to," Carballo said.

"Facility administration is cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who were affected," he added.

In a later statement today, Carballo expressed his condolences to the family members of the deceased and provided further details on what transpired at the nursing home.

"The center and its medical and administrative staff diligently prepared for the impact of Hurricane Irma,” Carballo said. “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.”

The center had a generator on standby "in compliance with state regulations," as well as seven days of food, water, ice and other supplies, including gas for the generator, Carballo added. After the air conditioning went down, staff set up "mobile cooling units and fans to cool the facility," Carballo said. Staff also "continually checked on residents' well-being" to ensure they were "hydrated and as comfortable as possible," Carballo said.

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

The Florida governor's office said Department of Health officials were "in contact with Larkin Community Hospital Behavioral Health Services management and the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills over the past three days" and that "hospital administrators were advised to call 911 if they had any reason to believe that the health or safety of patients was at risk."

The governor's office said Tuesday "the facility reported to the AHCA [Agency for Health Care Administration] that they had power and access to fans and spot coolers."

Police said a criminal investigation is underway and they are not ruling anything out.

"This was a terrible incident,” Katz, the director of emergency services at nearby Memorial Regional Hospital, said. “The scene was chaotic when I arrived. The fact that it's down the street — you know, we don’t have control over what goes on in that facility."

Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy said temperatures have climbed to over 90 degrees in the city and that half of Hollywood is without power.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement that he was "heartbroken" to learn of the deaths and he is "going to aggressively demand answers."

"This situation is unfathomable," Scott said. "Every facility that is charged with caring for patients must take every action and precaution to keep their patients safe, especially patients that are in poor health."

Scott said he has directed the state Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Children and Families to work with law enforcement on an investigation. "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,” the governor said.

Scott said he is also asking available first responders to check with their area health facilities to make sure nursing homes are keeping their residents safe.

The medical examiner's office said the victims were: Bobby Owens, 84; Manuel Mario Medieta, 96; Miguel Antonio Franco, 92; Estella Hendricks, 71; Gail Nova, 71; Carolyn Eatherly, 78; Betty Hibbard, 84; and Albertina Vega, 99.

Amber Mickles, whose great-grandmother is a patient at the nursing home, told reporters she believes her great-grandmother is OK, but she's "trying to see exactly what's going on because we don't really know."

Mickles said she was not notified of any air conditioning issues.

"I can't even take the heat right now from the air conditioning down," she said. "I'm 29, I can't take it."

"I feel very sorry for the ones that lost somebody," she added. "I think you should've had the option to come pick up your family member."

The nursing home has faced problems in the past. In the past three years, the center has had multiple citations for health deficiencies, according to the Medicare website.

In addition, a report from the Agency for Health Care Administration found that the center is in the bottom 20 percent for inspection, quality of care and dignity.

ABC News' Dan Childs, Lauren Pearle, Ben Stein and Jason Volack contributed to this report.

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  • Nitro Noriega

    ABC news moderators... quick question (I know the answer) but I want you to respond so all can see....

    Why are you censoring comments that do not break rules? Why are you removing comments that break no rules?

    Why are you suppressing free speech?

    Free thinking people want to know...

  • littlepinkinco

    There are now 8 dead . This should have never happened. The elderly should have been the first evacuated. Let this be a lesson to the elderly that Florida my not be the best place to retire.

  • Kobrakai7272

    Let me be clear up front that I am NOT defending ANYBODY at that nursing home but this is more complicated than we want to admit. Yes, it seems like a no brainer to just move them all to the hospital next door the minute the AC failed, but there are literally 70,000+ people in nursing homes in Florida and less than 60,000 total hospital beds. Considering hospitals are likely fuller than usual and struggling with same staffing and utility issues that nursing homes are, obviously, the math fails quickly. None of that justifies not reaching out to emergency management authorities to discuss options the minute the AC failed and, if no prompt action was taken, taking matters into their own hands the minute it became apparent that patients were in danger. I am just pointing out that this is a lot clearer in hindsight than it was when this all started.

  • Another commenter

    So, Cabarallo, you did everything exactly right in this emergency. I guess your patients must have just misbehaved or something or they'd be alive. What in the heck is wrong with you to insist you had everything under control while your patients were dying? Unbelievable!

  • Camus53

    As I said earlier...there are many...dozens...maybe many dozens... of these nursing and rehab facilities in S.Florida that have been without power, now for days! Large multi-story facilities down to small home care facilities.

    An exaggeration? Fake news? Nope!
    Now receiving extensive coverage in local press...and rightfully so!

    Are the residents being evacuated? Not necessarily in reading the stories. The facilities seem reluctant to release patients for any number of reasons. Most patients need some manner of medical care which means going to a hospital and then how do you transport and then house the hundreds of aged infirmed patients all at once in hospitals...and...and...and well it is complicated!

    Stories not good enough? How about my mother in law whose 5 story 55 and up, read that 70yrs and up in reality, facility was without power or air for 3 days until residents called the fire department for help to restore emergency power.

    Welcome to the Sunshine State!

  • Trump Rules Obama fools

    Trump, Nutcase Nancy and Schmuckie. The Good The Bad and The Ugly

  • Holly

    It was the firefighters that outed this home and got the ball moving...not the administrator. Good on them.

  • Life's a River

    Tragic. Especially considering that there was a major hospital right across the street from them. This is a case of some administrator putting the financial bottom line (corporate profit) ahead of patient needs.

  • DoubleG

    Good reason to be nice to your kids. They pick your nursing home.

  • JimBo

    Well, they wanted to live in Florida...

  • colloguy

    The facility should of indicated they were concerned for the health of their residents due to the heat.
    The challenge is that such a statement can result in the dispatch of ambulances and other major costs. But that is part of the reason they charge thousands a month.

  • yetanother1

    There is NO excuse for treating the helpless and elderly this way. Shame on the heartless boobs that allowed this to happen.

  • Kobrakai7272

    If it wasn't obvious before Harvey and Irma, it sure should be now: The nursing home industry is not attracting our best and brightest.

  • Free Butterfly

    What the heck?! Did this cursed hurricane take out their generator also? This should not happen!

  • Rick

    There is NO excuse for this. Nursing homes leaving their people to sit in water after Harvey. Now people are dying in nursing homes after Irma due to no electricity. The owners of these facilities should be sent to prison, and their assets used to compensate the people and their families.

  • stc1993

    The nursing home is going to be in a lot of trouble. They are suppose to have a disaster plan on file for times like this. Either an evacuation plan with a signed agreement with the intended destination or back up generators to keep things going. My wife owned 3 PC homes in GA for almost 30 yrs. I knew the rules pretty good & wrote a lot of the paper work for her.

  • Phraughy

    How tragic. What a horrible way to die.

  • CaptnBlynd

    They should have been evacuated sooner. That is obvious. The person who is responsible to make that medical decision will be ultimately responsible. Of course other considerations should not be neglected. There was a hurricane which everyone was dealing with. "Why didn't they just fix the AC?!" Sure, they could just call the AC company who handles their contract and as soon as the employees make it back from running for their lives then someone will stop by. A tragedy. A bad medical call. In the middle of a disaster zone.
    The staff who were there which many place blame of neglect on are the employees who came to work to care for these people in the middle of a disaster zone, likely for minimum wage. The vast bulk of them had neither the authority or the medical knowledge to have changed anything. Look to the management and medical supervisor for your scapegoats. These people were at work doing what they could in the middle of situations far outside of their control.

  • Camus53

    Would it surprise any of you to know that there are many...possibly dozens... of nursing homes similar to this one, multi-stories that are... right now...still without power!

    Now being reported locally in S. Florida press.

    Nevermind all the small local homes that function as care houses for elderly and dementia patients! Still without power.

  • tet1953

    Were the operators of the facility worried that they would be on the hook for housing or hospitalizing them elsewhere?

  • ababg

    There needs to be criminal charges. Hollywood FL is on the east coast and north of Miami. It wasn't even hit hard.

  • FUBAR 2U2

    Hold the entire staff accountable on charges of involuntary manslaughter, at the very least.

  • John Russell Sauquillo

    The HVAC guy says it was just a blown fuse while the company spokesperson said it was a transformer failure .....

    The spokesperson is obviously lying, someone made a bad decision to assume it was a power company problem and not spend the money to get a professional to look at it who likely would have had it up and running again in 10-15 minutes ..... This is not at all uncommon during storms especially with a lot of lightningto cause power surges that blow fuses on these commercial style units

  • Major Bollocks

    While this is sad, this is just the beginning. Asking the increasing numbers of Millennials entering the care industry to put aside their phones and antipathy towards the increasing number of baby boomer patients to take care of them isn't going to end well for a lot of people.

  • Turned around

    That is the downside to retiring in FL.

    Don't retire to Alaska either. Heat could go out.

  • BWitched

    I realize they just went through an epic storm, but this is one of the main reasons why we refused to put our mother in a home. We could not trust anyone to give her the love and attention that we gave, My mother passed (many years now) with children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, all who loved her by her side.
    My sympathies to the families of the ones who passed.

  • Kobrakai7272

    Obviously, there was a lot of garden variety incompetence here but, given the backdrop, I doubt it rose to the level of criminality. Now, as far as civil liability goes? That's different... but any trial lawyer will tell you that, in the legal world, old people... especially those who aren't currently working and thus aren't financially supporting anybody... aren't worth a whole lot.

  • Bike And Golf

    That interview was a waste of time ... no information here, just a suggestive reporter trying to put words in her mouth. That girl didn't have any real knowledge of the situation and she said so ... but her information is the basis of this story? Come on media, and you wonder why many people cannot believe what you have to say? Bring some real work to this story.