Hurricanes are thoughtless and violent. It is only realistic to say that some deaths can be expected during, and especially after.
But the needless and tragic deaths of eight elderly people Wednesday after apparently being left in sweltering temperatures in a nursing home/rehabilitation center has shocked South Florida and with good reason.
With such a high body count, there is little doubt that Irma turned the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills into a living hell — and now it seems clear that no one did enough to save those trapped inside without air conditioning — or called for help in time.
The roll call of victims and their ages are heartbreaking: They were parents, grandparents. They were loved ones: Bobby Owens, 84; Manuel Mario Mendieta, 96; Miguel Antonio Franco, 92; Estella Hendricks, 71; Gail Nova, 70; Carolyn Eatherly, 78; Betty Hibbard, 84; and Albertina Vega, 99.
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The causes of their deaths are yet to be determined, but indications are that they were related to the loss of air conditioning during the storm and in the days after. Also yet to be determined is how long these vulnerable people — either residents or recovering from surgery — were left in such stifling heat and, most important, why.
Gov. Rick Scott announced that the Florida Department of Children & Families and the Agency for Health Care Administration have begun an investigation. Hollywood Police Chief Tom Sanchez immediately called it a “criminal” probe. Ditto for Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.
They all have one goal: determining who is to blame for the deaths of these elderly people. And, criminal charges should follow should investigations nail down what looks for all the world like willful negligence. The nursing home has a poor history of inspection results and is affiliated with a South Miami hospital with a troubled past of its own. The state, too, has its own lousy record of regulation.
The Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration gave the home a health-inspection rating of “much below average,” the Miami Herald reported. The state lists Dr. Jack Michel, of South Miami, as the company’s manager. He is also the president of Larkin Community Hospital, which has campuses in South Miami and Hialeah. In 2006, the U.S. Justice Department fined Larkin and its owners $15.4 million in the settlement of a civil fraud complaint.
Broward officials said that the nursing home was in compliance with state and federal rules that require an evacuation plan. There was a drill there last year.
One would think that the awful photo of nursing-home residents in Houston, left to languish in waist-high water after Hurricane Harvey, would have made every facility in Florida cringe — and come up with a Plan A, B and C as Irma approached. Word is that Hollywood Hills had only partial generator service, not one to run the building’s air conditioning.
The eight nursing-home residents who died were not the only seniors trapped by sketchy planning. In Miami Dade, WLRN reporter Nadege Green found elderly residents in a series of Coconut Grove senior-living apartments who remained trapped, no elevator, no electricity; on Tuesday, about 50 residents of a senior-citizens tower in Miami’s Civic Center neighborhood damaged by Irma were being taken to a shelter.
And to think: We almost escaped Hurricane Irma’s ire without a senseless loss of life.