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 heat-related, 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 air-conditioned 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 Caballo, 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.