For three days, the staff at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills scrambled to keep residents hydrated and cool after a tree fell down onto a transformer that powered the air conditioning system.
By Wednesday, eight of the nursing home’s residents had died. Six died from heat-related issues; the causes of the other two deaths are under investigation.
“The initial investigation has determined that the facility’s air conditioning system was not fully functional,” said the city of Hollywood, Florida in a statement. “Portable A/C units were being used in the facility, but the facility was excessively hot.”
The nursing home said it was prepped for Hurricane Irma. The power generator was working, and the staff stocked up on seven days’ worth of food and water. But, they didn’t anticipate they would still have to fight the intense heat with fans and portable air conditioner units.
“The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills expresses its deepest sympathy to the family members of the residents who passed away following a prolonged outage of our air conditioning system due to Hurricane Irma,” the nursing home said in a statement. “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.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered an emergency moratorium on Wednesday to prevent the facility from admitting new patients.
Three agencies have launched investigations into how this happened, but many questions remain unanswered. A criminal investigation is also underway and a search warrant has been signed for the Hollywood Police Department, according to city officials.
“I am going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place,” Scott said in a statement. “If they find that this facility was not meeting the state’s high standards of care, they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
What happened – and when
Families are struggling to understand what happened to their loved ones who died, who ranged in ages from 71 to 99. But, here’s what we do know, according to Hollywood city officials:
Tuesday morning: The nursing home told the Broward County Emergency Operations Center it had lost power, according to a statement by the center. A “mission-critical” request to restore power was made to Florida Power & Light. The nursing home was asked if it had any medical needs or emergencies, said Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief in the center’s statement. No assistance was requested.
That day, one patient was found dead and taken to a funeral home. The patient had a do-not-resuscitate order, according to Hollywood city spokeswoman Raelin Storey. No one called authorities to alert them, Storey said.
3 a.m. Wednesday: Someone called 911 for a patient suffering cardiac arrest. That patient was taken to Memorial Regional Hospital.
4 a.m. Wednesday: A second 911 call came in to transport another resident with breathing problems.
After the second call was completed, a fire lieutenant notified a battalion chief and called the Department of Children and Families to report concerns about the facility.
Shortly thereafter: A third 911 call came in for yet another patient transport – this time prompting the fire department to send more crews to the nursing home to investigate.
In addition to the resident taken to a funeral home on Tuesday, three others were found dead on the second floor of the nursing home and several others were in distress.
9:15 a.m. Wednesday: In all, 141 patients had been evacuated from the nursing home and were being evaluated by paramedics and hospital staff. Another four patients were evacuated from an adjacent behavioral health facility.
Paramedics rushed to evacuate the sweltering facility, but four more nursing home patients died in hospitals.
At least 35 of the evacuated nursing home patients were admitted to Memorial Healthcare System hospitals, said spokeswoman Kerting Baldwin. She said she could not comment on the conditions of those patients.
Son of deceased: “I’m not quite clear on how this happened”
Jeffrey Nova had been calling the nursing home where his mom lived, but he couldn’t get anyone to answer the phone since Sunday.
Still, that didn’t strike him as unusual, he said – communicating with the staff had always been like “pulling teeth.”
Finally, on Wednesday, he learned his mother, Gail Nova, was one of eight residents who died at the facility.
“I’m not quite clear on how this happened,” Jeffrey said.
He said he learned of his mother’s death not from the facility but from a reporter who got his name and contact info from a nursing home employee.
Without air conditioning, residents were kept in hallways near the cooling units as the days passed.
In a statement, nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said “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,” Carballo said.
With a moratorium in place and an ongoing criminal investigation, the residents of Hollywood Hills will find new homes at other facilities, Storey said.
“That is a difficult proposition,” she said. “There are not as many beds and facilities available as there are people with needs.”
Authorities are now questioning how the conditions at the nursing home lasted for so long.
Carballo said the center immediately contacted Florida Power & Light and continued to follow up with them for status updates on when repairs would be made. City and state officials said they were in contact with the nursing home over the past three days and advised them to call 911 if they believed the health or safety of patients was at risk.
“When asked if they had any medical needs or emergencies, (the nursing home) did not request assistance or indicate any medical emergency existed,” Sharief said in a statement.
Richard Beltran, a spokesman for Florida Power & Light, said in a statement: “What we know now is that a portion of the facility did, in fact, have power, that there was a hospital across the parking lot from this facility and that the nursing home was required to have a permanently installed operational generator.”
The nursing home has a history of safety violations and citations, including two for not following generator regulations in 2014 and 2016. In both instances, the nursing home corrected the deficiencies.
As power outages persist in Florida, the Hollywood facility is not the only one that has been affected by the storm.
The Florida Health Care Association, which represents 81 percent of Florida’s nursing centers – but not the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills – said about 150 facilities out of nearly 700 nursing home facilities in the state do not have full power services restored. The association has said it is working with the state to identify homes without power in greatest need so utility companies can prioritize them.
Evacuations at another nursing home
The deaths prompted checks of other nursing homes in the area.
Police checked 42 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Hollywood on Wednesday. Hours later, 79 residents from the Krystal Bay Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Miami Beach were evacuated to another facility because of the heat.
The South Florida facilities are among hundreds of nursing centers in the state. The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses and regulates such facilities, said there are 683 nursing homes in the state with more than 84,000 beds.
In addition, there are more than 3,100 assisted living facilities with more than 99,000 beds.