At least eight elderly people are dead after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to a Florida nursing home, leaving more than 100 patients to suffer in sweltering conditions, authorities said.
A criminal investigation is underway at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills after 911 calls began at about 3 a.m. Wednesday, reporting patients in distress. Late Wednesday, state officials placed an emergency moratorium on the facility, banning administrators from readmitting residents.
“We’re conducting a criminal investigation into the deaths that occurred here,” Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez said at a press conference Wednesday.
Political leaders demanded answers as details emerged of aged men and women languishing in oppressive heat and humidity as millions were left without power across the state.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson called the tragedy "an emerging scandal of gargantuan proportions."
Mayor Josh Levy told CNN, "Unfortunately, emergency services were called obviously too late."
Gov. Rick Scott said, "I am going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place. Although the details are still under investigation, this situation is unfathomable."
Gov. Rick Scott: I Am Demanding Answers pic.twitter.com/EgxW9SrtjZ— Rick Scott (@FLGovScott) September 13, 2017
The dead were identified by the Broward County medical examiner as Estella Hendricks, 71, Gail Nova, 71, Carolyn Eatherly, 78, Miguel Antonio Franco, 92, Betty Hibbard, 84, Manuel Mario Medieta, 96, Bobby Owens, 84, and Albertina Vega, 99.
Police and fire crews evacuated more than 100 people from the care facility and neighboring Larkin Community Hospital. Patients were transferred to nearby medical centers. More than 50 local medical workers arrived on scene to help triage the elderly.
“It’s a sad event,” Sanchez said. “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 facility's air conditioning gave out at some point during the horrific storm.
In a statement, the nursing home said it sustained a "prolonged power failure to the transformer which powered the facility's air conditioning system as a result of the hurricane."
It was not immediately clear when that transformer was knocked out.
"We are devastated by these losses," nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said in a statement. "We are fully cooperating with all authorities and regulators to assess what went wrong."
Carballo said staff put out fans and cooling units after the air conditioning system was disabled.
The facility has a list of safety violations and citations, including two for not following generator regulations in 2014 and 2016, according to state records, CNN reported. The nursing home was listed as correcting those citations.
"Most of the patients have been treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and heat-related issues," said Dr. Randy Katz of Memorial Regional Hospital, where several nursing home residents were sent for treatment.
Kitchen worker Jean Lindor told the Miami Herald there was no air conditioning, but the center had a generator that provided enough power to cook meals.
Temperatures ranged from the 80s to 90s on Tuesday and Wednesday, with heat indexes reaching into 100-plus degrees.
Several elderly residents remain in critical condition with breathing problems, the chief said.