6 die at nursing home as Irma's aftermath brings new hazards
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) — Six patients at a sweltering Hollywood nursing home died in Hurricane Irma's aftermath, authorities said Wednesday, as people confronted a multitude of new hazards in the storm's wake, including tree-clearing accidents and lethal fumes from generators.
Hollywood Police Chief Tom Sanchez said investigators believe 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.
Three patients were found dead at the nursing home early Wednesday, and three more died at the hospital after more than 100 in all were evacuated, many on stretchers or in wheelchairs, authorities said.
The air conditioning was out, but Sanchez said it remained under investigation whether power was entirely cut. He didn't answer questions regarding whether a generator was running inside the place.
Also in the Miami area, a Coral Gables apartment building was evacuated after authorities determined a lack of power made it unsafe for elderly tenants, while officers arrived at the huge Century Village retirement community in Pembroke Pines to help people on upper floors without access to working elevators. More than half the community of 15,000 residents lacked power.
In addition, 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.
Not counting the nursing home deaths, at least 13 people in Florida have died under in Irma-related circumstances, many of them well after the storm had passed. A Tampa man died after the chain saw he was using to remove trees kicked back and cut his carotid artery.
Elsewhere, Irma has been blamed for four deaths in South Carolina and two in Georgia. At least 37 people were killed in the Caribbean.
In the battered Florida Keys, meanwhile, county officials pushed back against a preliminary estimate from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that 25 percent of all homes in the Keys were destroyed and nearly all the rest were heavily damaged.
"Things look real damaged from the air, but when you clear the trees and all the debris, it's not much damage to the houses," said Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers.
The Keys felt Irma's full fury when the hurricane roared in on Sunday with 130 mph (209 kph) winds. But the extent of the damage has been an unanswered question for days because some places have been unreachable.
In Marathon Key, a Publix grocery store opened under police guard on Tuesday, but residents could buy only 20 items each, and no cigarettes or alcohol allowed, said 70-year-old retiree Elaine Yaquinto.
She said she had yet to see any state or federal agencies or utility companies working on the ground yet. Her home had no electricity or running water, apart from a trickle of cold water that was good enough for a shower.
"It made me feel like normal," she said.
President Donald Trump's homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, said the federal government is working to help Florida Keys residents secure shelter through rental assistance, hotels or pre-manufactured housing. Trump plans to visit Florida on Thursday.
For many of Irma's victims, the days ahead are likely to be soggy, sweaty, dark and discouraging. One of the biggest worries is the fate of Florida's many senior citizens.
The longtime retirement destination has the highest proportion of people 65 and older of any state — 1 in 5 of its 20 million residents.
On Tuesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he had received a lot of calls from nursing homes and assisted living facilities having problems with power.
"We're doing everything we can to help them get either generators, fuel, power back on. It's one of the things we're doing aggressively," Scott said.
At the Hollywood nursing home, Jean Lindor, a kitchen worker, said through a Haitian Creole translator that the air conditioner had not been working since the storm and it had been hot inside.
Paulburn Bogle, a member of the housekeeping staff, said the place had been hot but manageable the past few days. The staff used fans, put cold towels and ice on patients and gave them cold drinks, he said.
Broward County Medical Examiner Dr. Craig Mallak said his office had received the bodies of three of the victims — two women age 71 and another who was 78 — for autopsies.
"They were sick already. It's going to be tough to tell how much was the heat and how much of it was they were sick already," Mallak said.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulates nursing homes, gives 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.
Flora Mitchell arrived at the home trying to find out what happened to her 58-year-old sister, Vonda Wilson, a stroke patient who lived there for about 10 years. She said she last heard from her sister two days ago and found out the air conditioning was not working.
"We need to know what happened to her," she said. "They haven't told us anything."
Calls to the owner and other officials at the home were not immediately returned. The facility was bought at a bankruptcy auction two years ago after its previous owner when to prison for Medicare fraud, according to news reports at the time of the sale.
At the Coral Gables building that was evacuated, five firefighters went up the dark emergency stairwell, strapped Ofelia Carrillo — a frail 97-year-old woman who is immobile and has heart problems — to a special evacuation chair and carried her down.
"This is the most stressful situation I've lived in my life," said her daughter Madeleine Alvarez said.
The number of people without electricity in the steamy late-summer heat dropped to 9.5 million — just under half of Florida's population. Utility officials warned it could take 10 days or more for power to be fully restored. About 110,000 people remained in shelters across the state.
While nearly all of Florida was engulfed by the massive storm, the Keys — home to about 70,000 people — appeared to be the hardest hit. Drinking water and power were cut off, all three of the islands' hospitals were closed, and gasoline was extremely limited.
Search-and-rescue teams made their way into the more distant reaches of the Keys, and an aircraft carrier was positioned off Key West to help. Officials said it was not known how many people ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind in the Keys, but a county spokeswoman said Wednesday that crews had so far found no casualties in their door-to-door searches of the hardest-hit areas.
Crews also worked to repair two washed-out, 300-foot (90-meter) sections of U.S. 1, the sole highway that runs through the Keys, and check the safety of the 42 bridges linking the islands.
The Lower Keys, including the most populous island, Key West, were still off-limits, with a roadblock in place where the highway was washed out.