Florida emergency workers urged to check on nursing homes after heat deaths

Staff members at Westwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and firefighters from Fort Walton Beach Fire Department load Hurricane Irma evacuees, who had stayed at Westwood since last Saturday, onto a bus on Wednesday Sept. 13, 2017 to head back to the their facility in Mayo, Fla. (Nick Tomecek/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) – Florida emergency workers have been urged to immediately check the welfare of those in nursing homes after eight people died in a scorching facility that lost its air conditioning during Hurricane Irma.

In one of the latest actions to protect older residents, firefighters helped relocate 122 people late Wednesday from two assisted living centers near Orlando that had been without power since Hurricane Irma.

Stepped-up efforts came after the eight deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which shocked Florida’s top leaders even as they surveyed destruction from a storm that spread its punishing effects across the entire state.

“Unfathomable,” Gov. Rick Scott said of the nursing home deaths. “Inexcusable,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson added.

In Coral Gables, an apartment building was evacuated after authorities said its lack of power made it unsafe for elderly tenants. And at the15,000-resident Century Village retirement community in Pembroke Pines, where there were also widespread outages, rescue workers went door to door in the 94-degree heat checking on residents and bringing ice, water and meals.

For the elderly outside assisted living facilities, such as 94-year-old Mary Dellaratta, getting help can depend on the attentiveness of neighbors, family and local authorities. The widow evacuated her Naples condominium with the help of police the day before the storm hit. After the hurricane passed, a deputy took her back home and another brought her food. A deacon from her Roman Catholic church has also stopped by.

But with no family in the area and neighbors who are gone or unwilling to help, the New York native feels cut off from the world.

“I have nobody,” she said.

The electricity is out in her condo, so there’s no television for news. She also can’t raise the electric-powered hurricane shutters that cover her kitchen windows.

Near the point of despair, remembering to take her medicine or locating her cane are almost insurmountable challenges.

“I don’t know what to do. How am I going to last here?” she said, as a tear rolled down her cheek.

Though the number of people with electricity had improved from earlier in the week, some 6.8 million people across the peninsula continued to wait for power, and utility officials warned it could take a week or more for all areas to be back up and running.

As recovery continues, President Donald Trump was due to visit Naples in southwestern Florida on Thursday.

Including the nursing home deaths, at least 25 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.

In Hollywood, the Rehabilitation Center said the hurricane had knocked out a transformer that powered the air conditioning. Broward County said the home alerted officials Tuesday that it had lost power, but when asked if it had any medical needs or emergencies, it did not request help.

Early Wednesday morning, after responding to three calls about patients there in distress, firefighters went through the facility and found three people dead and evacuated more than 150 patients to hospitals, many on stretchers or in wheelchairs, authorities said.

By the afternoon, five more had died. Others were treated for dehydration, breathing difficulties and other heat-related problems.

Hollywood Police Chief Tom Sanchez said investigators believe the deaths at the Rehabilitation Center were heat-related and said the a criminal investigation is underway. The chief said authorities have not ruled anything out in the deaths, including carbon monoxide poisoning from generators. Authorities performed safety checks on other facilities around the city Wednesday.

Glendale Owens, the daughter of one of the men who died, said she visited her father in the nursing home Monday and everything seemed fine. She said Bobby Owens had been at the facility for more than 10 years.

“People are telling me different things,” she said Wednesday evening. “But nobody from the facility has told me anything yet.”

Paulburn Bogle, a member of the housekeeping staff, said after the air conditioning failed, the staff used fans, put cold towels and ice on patients and gave them cold drinks. The medical examiner’s office said the victims were five women and three men, ages 70 to 99.

Calls to the owner and other officials at the Hollywood home were not immediately returned, but the facility’s administrator, Jorge Carballo, said in a statement that it was “cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome.”

The governor announced in a news release Wednesday night that he’s directed the Agency for Health Care Administration to issue an emergency moratorium for the facility, preventing it from admitting new patients indefinitely.

Nursing homes in Florida are required by law to file an emergency plan that includes evacuation plans for residents. County officials released documents showing that the Hollywood facility was in compliance with that regulation and that it held a hurricane drill with its staff in October.

Around the state, hazards were popping up in the aftermath of the storm. At least six people in Florida died of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning from generators, and a Tampa man died after the chain saw he was using to remove trees recoiled and cut his carotid artery.

The number of people in shelters across the state fell to less than 13,000.

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