Disaster Planning

Florida Nursing Home Deaths After Irma Prompt Criminal Probe

  • Victims found in heat-baked facility following hurricane
  • Millions in state still without power from Irma’s fallout
Patients are evacuated from The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills on Sept. 13, 2017.

Photographer: Amy Beth Bennett/Florida Sun Sentinel via AP Images

Police are conducting a criminal investigation into the death of eight people in a Hollywood, Florida, nursing home after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to the facility, as millions of utility customers were still without electricity following the storm’s sweep through the state.

Three of the victims were found dead at the nursing home and the others died on the way to the hospital or after they arrived there, Hollywood Police Chief Tom Sanchez said at a news conference. After getting a call at 4 a.m. Wednesday that someone had died at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, police arrived to find it was extremely hot on the building’s second floor. In addition to fatalities, they found other residents who were gravely ill.

Dr. Randy Katz, the emergency room medical director at a hospital across the street from the nursing home, said they evacuated 115 patients and at least a dozen are being treated now. “Potentially” more people could die, he said at the time, and the death toll has climbed by two since those remarks. Victims were suffering from respiratory distress, dehydration and other heat-related injuries.

Florida Governor Rick Scott said in a statement he would “aggressively demand answers” on what he called an “unfathomable” situation. The ages of the victims ranged from 71 to 99.

The state prosecutor and the agency that regulates nursing homes are both involved in the investigation, Sanchez said. Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said government officials had requested that power companies prioritize senior citizen communities before the hurricane hit.

Robert Gould, a spokesman for NextEra Energy Inc.’s Florida Power & Light, said utility representatives had met with Broward County officials in early March. “We worked with them. They identified which facilities were to be critical, top infrastructure facilities,” Gould said. “This was not one of them, unlike Memorial Regional Medical Hospital across the street, which is in service.”

But the Broward County government, in a statement released late Wednesday, suggested that the utility shared responsibility. It said the facility had in fact been listed as “non-critical” infrastructure, but only because that was how nursing homes were supposed to be designated under FPL’s own guidance. It also said the information on the power outage was relayed to FPL on Tuesday as “mission-critical.”

“The elderly depend on us for their care, and it’s especially sad when something like this happens,” Katz, the doctor, told reporters.

— With assistance by Jim Polson