By Neil Reisner and Amy Harmon
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Eight people are dead and more than 100 have been evacuated to hospitals from a nursing home that had no air conditioning after Hurricane Irma, officials said Wednesday.
The nursing home, the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, had electricity but the transformer that powered the air conditioning had sustained a "prolonged power failure," the administrator said in a statement provided to NBC 6, a local television station.
Initially, three people were discovered dead inside the nursing home, according to Craig T. Mallak, chief of the Broward County Medical Examiner and Trauma Services office, and another died en route to Memorial Regional Hospital.
During the day, three more died at the hospital, he said, and late Wednesday afternoon, Mallak's office learned of an eighth death, which occurred at the nursing home around 3 a.m. Wednesday. That person had been excluded from the numbers first provided by officials, he said, because that individual was taken directly to a funeral home.
"I don't know how many more I'm going get," Mallack said, referring to the rising death toll. "These are really sick people."
"It's a sad event," Tomas Sanchez, the Hollywood police chief, said earlier in the day. "As a precautionary measure, we've assigned police officers to go check all the other 42 assisted living facilities and nursing homes throughout the city to make sure they're in sufficient care of the elderly."
The police and state authorities were conducting a criminal investigation into the deaths, according to Sanchez and the governor's office.
Chris Del Campo, a battalion chief for the Hollywood Fire Department, said the department received numerous calls Wednesday morning from the facility. Once the responders arrived, they noticed that it was extremely hot, and around 6:30 a.m. they ordered an evacuation, he said.
The residents, as well as residents at an adjacent facility owned by the same company, were taken to several hospitals. Memorial Regional Hospital was calling in extra staff and will transfer people as needed to other facilities in the area, said Kering Baldwin, a spokesman for the hospital.
Dr. Randy Katz, the medical director of the emergency department at Memorial, said that most of the evacuees had been treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and heat-related issues.
Katz said he arrived on scene around 7:15 a.m. and that 50 to 100 Memorial employees assisted in the evacuation.
"This was a terrible incident," he said. "The scene was chaotic when I arrived."
Witness accounts suggested that the heat had caused problems inside the nursing home at least since Tuesday afternoon. When Eli Pina went to visit her mother, Mirelle Pina, 96, on Tuesday at noon, it was sweltering inside, she said.
Eli Pina said that she was shocked and that she urged the staff to make sure all the patients were OK. "It felt like 110 degrees," she said.
Alarmed at the conditions, Pina said she called the power company, Florida Power & Light, four times to report the problem. She was told that help was on the way. But no one came.
She heard the news on the television Wednesday morning and drove straight over. When she found out her mother was fine, she was relieved.
"This was an emergency, a life-threatening situation," she said. "The facility should have transferred people yesterday."
There were many unanswered questions Wednesday about the role and responsibilities not only of the nursing home, but also of the power company and county and state authorities.
In a statement, Gov. Rick Scott's office said that on Tuesday, the nursing home had reported to the state that it had power and access to fans and spot coolers provided by Memorial Healthcare, which runs the hospital. The nursing home was advised to call 911 if it believed any patient was in danger, the statement said.
"I am going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place," the governor said in the statement. "Although the details of these reported deaths are still under investigation, this situation is unfathomable. 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."
Barbara Perez Carballo, the wife of the facility's administrator, Jorge Carballo, said in an interview that her husband had been at the nursing home throughout the disaster attending to the residents.
The power company "has had a work order since the storm, and we've called Tallahassee, we've called the mayor's office, we've called the governor's office," said Perez Carballo, who added she did not have an official role at the home. "We had food, everything was operational. The only issue was the air conditioning was not working."
Power outages remain a large concern after the hurricane, with 3.5 million customers around the state lacking service Wednesday midafternoon, down from more than 6 million during and immediately after the hurricane. The state's power companies have had to prioritize who gets service restored first. Typically, priorities are established well in advance of storms.
Rob Gould, a spokesman for Florida Power & Light, said at a news conference Wednesday that the company met in March with Broward County officials to discuss hurricane preparations, but that the officials had not flagged the facilities evacuated Wednesday as "top-tier" critical infrastructure that would need power first. Memorial Regional Hospital, where many residents were taken, was one of those top-tier facilities.
"They identified which facilities were to be critical, top infrastructure facilities," Gould said of county officials. "This was not one of them, unlike Memorial Hospital across the street, which is in service."
"That's why we work with the counties, for them to help identify those facilities," Gould said.
Broward County officials did not immediately comment on the matter.
Flora Mitchell, 61, of Dania Beach, Florida, said her sister, Vonda Wilson, 58, has lived at the nursing home since suffering a stroke 10 years ago.
Mitchell, who went to the home after hearing of the deaths on the news, said she did not know if her sister, who cannot walk or talk but can hear, was OK. "It's terrible, with no news about her," she said.
Roughly 160 nursing homes in Florida remained without commercial power on Wednesday morning, according to the state's tracking system. Most of those nursing homes lacked a generator that could run air conditioning. High temperatures were becoming a major concern.
State officials emphasized that nursing homes were a priority for power restoration. However, some nursing home administrators reported that local power company representatives were telling them they were not.
Florida requires nursing homes to have procedures to ensure emergency power in a disaster as well as food, water, staffing and 72 hours of supplies. A new federal rule, which takes effect in November, adds that whatever the alternative source of energy is, it must be capable of maintaining temperatures that protect residents' health and safety.
In general, nursing homes are required to maintain temperatures between 71 and 81 degrees, according to Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates nursing homes. That rule applies to nursing homes certified for the first time after October 1990. However, facilities certified before that time "still must maintain safe and comfortable temperature levels," the agency's guidance says.
Some nursing homes also have reported staffing issues from a lack of fuel for transportation. Others were reporting difficulty getting transportation companies to move their residents.
"In the days prior to the storm and through today, we have been in regular communication with our facilities to help coordinate needs and ensure proper implementation of the emergency management plans each facility is required to have," the Florida Health Care Association said in a statement. "We are continuing to actively work with local, state, and federal officials – and the appropriate utility and aid organizations – to ensure that the needs of the residents in these facilities are met."