Eight dead in Flor­ida nurs­ing home that lost power dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Irma

The Guardian Australia - - World News - As­so­ci­ated Press and Ed Pilk­ing­ton in Mi­ami

Eight res­i­dents at a swel­ter­ing nurs­ing home died af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma knocked out the air con­di­tion­ing, rais­ing fears on Wed­nes­day about the safety of Flor­ida’s 4 mil­lion se­nior cit­i­zens amid wide­spread power out­ages that could go on for days.

The Hol­ly­wood po­lice chief, Tom Sanchez, said in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieved the deaths at the Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter at Hol­ly­wood Hills were heatre­lated, and added: “The build­ing has been sealed off and we are con­duct­ing a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” He did not elab­o­rate.

“It’s a sad state of af­fairs,” Sanchez said. “We all have elderly peo­ple in fa­cil­i­ties, and we all know we de­pend on those peo­ple in those fa­cil­i­ties to care for a vul­ner­a­ble elderly pop­u­la­tion.”

Gover­nor Rick Scott called on Flor­ida emer­gency work­ers to im­me­di­ately check on nurs­ing homes and as­sisted liv­ing fa­cil­i­ties to make sure res­i­dents were safe. He or­dered an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into what he called an “un­fath­omable” sit­u­a­tion. “I am de­mand­ing an­swers,” he wrote on Twit­ter.

The home said in a state­ment that the hur­ri­cane had knocked out a trans­former that pow­ered the air con­di­tion­ing. Ex­actly how the deaths hap­pened was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, with Sanchez say­ing au­thor­i­ties had not ruled any­thing out, in­clud­ing car­bon monox­ide poi­son­ing from gen­er­a­tors. He also said in­ves­ti­ga­tors would look into how many win­dows were open in the nurs­ing home. Across the street from the nurs­ing home sat a fully air­con­di­tioned hospi­tal, Me­mo­rial Re­gional.

The deaths came as peo­ple try­ing to put their lives back to­gether in hur­ri­cane-stricken Flor­ida and be­yond con­fronted a mul­ti­tude of new haz­ards in the storm’s wake, in­clud­ing tree-clear­ing ac­ci­dents and lethal fumes from gen­er­a­tors. Not count­ing the nurs­ing home deaths, at least 14 peo­ple in Flor­ida have died un­der Irma-re­lated cir­cum­stances, and six more in South Carolina and Ge­or­gia, many of them well af­ter the storm had passed. The death toll across the Caribbean stood at 38.

The most in­tense res­cue mis­sion con­tin­ued to be in the Flor­ida Keys, where en­tire com­mu­ni­ties have been cut off for days with no ac­cess to power, food or wa­ter. Search and res­cue op­er­a­tions con­tin­ued in Cud­joe Key, the epi­cen­ter of what has been de­scribed as a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in the Keys, where the eye of the hur­ri­cane landed on Sun­day morn­ing.

In an echo of the trauma that had be­fallen the res­i­dents of the nurs­ing home in Hol­ly­wood, con­cern was mount­ing for an older cou­ple in Cud­joe who were re­ported by neigh­bors to the Guardian to be in trou­ble. An older man, de­scribed as in his late 60s or early 70s, had spent 26 hours ly­ing on the floor of his house af­ter his wheel­chair had top­pled over dur­ing the cat­e­gory four storm with his wife, who has Alzheimer’s, un­able to as­sist.

He spent 26 hours on the floor be­fore he was res­cued by the neigh­bor, Tony Pothul, who had heard his cries for help while pass­ing the house.

Mil­i­tary and civil­ian emer­gency re­serves are now pil­ing into the Keys, which bore the brunt of Irma’s force. Fed­eral Ur­ban Search and Res­cue teams are also go­ing house to house in Cud­joe, Big Pine and other com­mu­ni­ties where there are fears that older and vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple might still be in dan­ger.

At least five peo­ple died and more than a dozen were treated af­ter breath­ing car­bon monox­ide fumes from gen­er­a­tors in the Orlando, Mi­ami and Day­tona Beach ar­eas. A Tampa man died af­ter the chain­saw he was us­ing to re­move trees kicked back and cut his carotid artery.

In Hol­ly­wood, three res­i­dents were found dead at the nurs­ing home early Wed­nes­day af­ter emer­gency work­ers re­ceived a call about a per­son with a heart at­tack, and five more died later, po­lice said.

Al­to­gether, more than 100 res­i­dents there were found to be suf­fer­ing in the heat and were evac­u­ated, many on stretch­ers or in wheel­chairs. They were treated for de­hy­dra­tion, breath­ing dif­fi­cul­ties and other heat-re­lated ills, au­thor­i­ties said.

Nurs­ing homes in Flor­ida are re­quired by state and fed­eral law to file emer­gency plans that in­clude evac­u­a­tion plans for res­i­dents. Any plan sub­mit­ted by the Hol­ly­wood cen­ter was not im­me­di­ately avail­able.

Calls to the owner and other of­fi­cials at the Hol­ly­wood home were not im­me­di­ately re­turned, but the fa­cil­ity’s ad­min­is­tra­tor, Jorge Ca-

ballo, said in a state­ment that it was “co­op­er­at­ing fully with rel­e­vant au­thor­i­ties to in­ves­ti­gate the cir­cum­stances that led to this un­for­tu­nate and tragic out­come”.

Through a rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Car­ballo told the Sun Sen­tinel news­pa­per that the home had a back-up gen­er­a­tor but that it did not power the air con­di­tion­ing. The nurs­ing home was bought at a bank­ruptcy auc­tion two years ago af­ter its pre­vi­ous owner went to prison for Medi­care fraud, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports at the time of the sale.

The Cen­ters for Medi­care and Med­i­caid Ser­vices, which reg­u­lates nurs­ing homes, gives the Hol­ly­wood cen­ter a be­low-av­er­age rat­ing, two stars on its five-star scale. But the most re­cent state in­spec­tion re­ports showed no de­fi­cien­cies in the area of emer­gency plans.

Flor­ida, long one of Amer­ica’s top re­tire­ment des­ti­na­tions, has the high­est pro­por­tion of peo­ple 65 and older of any state: one in five of its 20 mil­lion res­i­dents. As of 2016, Flor­ida had about 680 nurs­ing homes.

As of Tues­day, the num­ber of peo­ple with­out elec­tric­ity in the steamy late-sum­mer heat had dropped to 6.8 mil­lion, about a third of Flor­ida’s pop­u­la­tion. Util­ity of­fi­cials warned it could take 10 days or more for power to be fully re­stored. The num­ber of peo­ple re­main­ing in shel­ters fell to un­der 13,000.

Mean­while, one of the main high­ways that con­nects Flor­ida to the rest of the coun­try is in dan­ger of be­ing closed be­cause of flooding caused by Hur­ri­cane Irma.

The Santa Fe river in north cen­tral Flor­ida that runs un­der I-75 has rapidly risen within the past two days, ac­cord­ing to Flor­ida trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials. Of­fi­cials say the wa­ter will prob­a­bly rise fur­ther in the com­ing days.

The bridge that crosses the river is just north of Gainesville, home to the Univer­sity of Flor­ida. If the ris­ing river forces the high­way to close, it could cre­ate ma­jor de­tours for evac­uees try­ing to re­turn to the state.

Ten­nessee is sched­uled to play UF this week­end in Gainesville, so a closed I-75 could also cause prob­lems for those try­ing to at­tend the game.

In Sandy Springs, Ge­or­gia, a man was killed when a tree top­pled on his house. And 67-year-old Nancy Ea­son died af­ter a tree fell on a ve­hi­cle she was rid­ing in Forsyth County.

South Carolina’s gover­nor, Henry McMaster, on Tues­day lifted an evac­u­a­tion or­der that had been in ef­fect on the bar­rier is­lands in the south­ern part of the state.

The Na­tional Park Ser­vice said Irma’s rains and storm surge left 3ft of wa­ter in­side Fort Sumter, the site of the first bat­tle of the civil war.

Pho­to­graph: Marta La­vandier/AP

Po­lice of­fi­cers talk to an em­ployee at the Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter at Hol­ly­wood Hills in Hol­ly­wood, Flor­ida, where eight res­i­dents died in Hur­ri­cane Irma’s af­ter­math, au­thor­i­ties said Wed­nes­day.

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