One day after the deaths of eight elderly residents of a Hollywood nursing home that lost power during Hurricane Irma, anxious family members demanded answers about their loved ones while local, state and federal officials continued their criminal investigation into the mass casualty incident.
Police detectives searched the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills for clues to what caused the patients’ deaths, and said they found that the facility had some power but that the building’s air-conditioning system had failed.
Though it was too early to assign responsibility for the patients’ deaths, Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez said the nursing home may have been flying under the radar with the city. The facility is licensed by the state, but it has never received a visit from a city task force assigned to monitor nursing homes.
“If we find anybody did any criminal wrongdoing,” Sanchez said, “we are going to hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
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Sanchez confirmed that a total of 145 patients were evacuated Wednesday from two facilities, including 141 who lived at the Rehabilitation Center and four who were staying at the adjoining Larkin Community Hospital Behavioral Health Services, a psychiatric facility. Larkin owns both centers.
All of the evacuees were transferred to local hospitals. By Thursday, only 39 remained hospitalized. Their conditions were not disclosed. All others have been transferred to other nursing homes in the area.
After Wednesday’s mass evacuation, Sanchez said, city inspectors visited all 42 nursing homes registered in Hollywood. One, called Amazing Care, was ordered to evacuate its five patients because the center had no power.
As police continued their investigation, Memorial Healthcare System doctors and nurses described the nursing home evacuation as one of the largest rescue operations they had ever carried out.
“I’ve seen a lot here, but this by far outweighs anything in terms of patient volume,” said Dr. Randy Katz, a chief of emergency medicine for Memorial Healthcare.
Katz said the hospital was first alerted by Hollywood firefighters and emergency medical crews responding to a distress call at the facility at about 4 a.m. Wednesday.
Judy Frum, chief nursing officer at Memorial Regional Hospital across the street from the facilities, said staff rushed in after hearing that three patients had been taken to the emergency room with dangerously high temperatures.
“It kind of set off a red flag that something may be going on in the building,” Frum said. “So I and another colleague who happened to be manning the command center decided we need to walk over to see if we can offer our assistance.”
Frum said the temperature inside the nursing home was “very warm” and that patients were being moved from their sweltering rooms into areas with fans. She sounded the alarm to her colleagues, and the hospital activated its mass casualty response plan, with evacuees labeled by colors indicating level of distress: red, green and yellow.
Yet as the evacuation unfolded and TV news began to broadcast the event, family members of the evacuees said they weren’t told what had happened to their loved ones.
Evangelina Moulder, whose 93-year-old mother was recovering at the rehab center, said she found out about the evacuation from her husband, who saw it on TV.
“He said, ‘Oh, my God!’ ” she said. “I put on some clothes and went directly over there.”
Amid the chaos, Moulder asked to see her mother, Bertha Aguiar. She was told her mother was across the street, at Memorial Regional’s emergency room, being hydrated and assessed.
Aguiar just kept repeating the same phrase in Spanish, Moulder said: “Alguien se equivoco” — Somebody made a mistake.
Moulder said she had visited the rehab center prior to Hurricane Irma to ensure her mom was safe.
“It was hot,” she said. “The first floor was hot, so I opened the window in her room. ... I really didn’t get too upset by this, because I knew they had a generator. I checked with them before the storm, and they told me they had a generator. I figured she was going to be OK.”
Moulder, 64, returned to the rehab center on Thursday to pick up her mother’s belongings because Aguiar has been moved to another nursing home. “They wouldn’t let me in, because it’s a crime scene,” Moulder said.
But other families lost loved ones. Jeff Nova said his mother, Gail Nova, 70, knew everyone at the nursing home, and everyone knew her.
“You didn’t need to give a last name,” he said. “Everyone knew Gail.”
She’d lived at the center eight years, he said, where he placed her because it’s across the street from a hospital.
“If she needed care,” he said, “they literally had only feet to go.”
Gail Nova was a retired X-ray technician from New Jersey who raised Jeff Nova on her own, he said, recalling his mother as the type of person who made friends easily.
“She’d be the woman that if you were at Publix and you were standing in line, you’d leave with a cell number and a new best friend,” he said.
Nova was one of the eight dead patients, who ranged in age from 77 to 99.
Eunice Thomas-Hunter of New York said she, too, chose the Hollywood nursing home for her mother because of its convenient location — close to her sister.
Thomas-Hunter said her mother, Alice Thomas, who survived, lived on the first floor.
After visiting the center, Thomas-Hunter began to have second thoughts: “I thought it was at times chaotic. They seemed short staffed. And it was cramped.”
The Hollywood facilities evacuated this week are not the only healthcare centers without power. As of Thursday morning state officials said more than 150 assisted living facilities and 44 nursing homes had evacuated or closed.
The Florida Health Care Association said in a written statement that it has urged utilities and government officials to try to restore power to every nursing home in the state as soon as possible.
Kristen Knapp, communications director for the FHCA, said that 60 nursing homes in Florida were without power Thursday morning. By the afternoon, that number had dropped to 39.
But not all of the nearly 700 nursing homes in Florida have checked in with the state.
“I have a list of about 130 facilities that have still not reported to the state,” she said, “That could be because they don’t have power, or it could be that they just haven’t reported their status.”
FHCA said that although an investigation into the eight patient deaths in Hollywood has yet to conclude, “It is clear that this is an isolated incident and is not representative of the larger long-term care profession in Florida.”
But AARP Florida called Wednesday for a thorough review of state and local emergency management procedures, state law and state funding for frail older Floridians, those living with disabilities and family caregivers.
“This is more than an isolated situation,” said David Bruns, a spokesman for AARP Florida. “This needs review by the Florida Legislature.”
Miami Herald staff writers David J. Neal and Caitlin Ostroff and Miami Herald news partner CBS4 contributed to this report.