Second floor was deadliest at nursing home with no air conditioning

Erika Pesantes, Megan O'Matz, Susannah Bryan and Paula McMahon, Sun Sentinel on

Published in Weather News

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- They were mostly very old and sickly. But at least 10 of the 12 residents of the Hollywood nursing home who died after Hurricane Irma had another factor in common -- they lived on the building's top floor, where the heat was the worst and most windows were left unopened.

It wasn't until the morning of Sept. 13, shortly before dawn, that staff at the rehabilitation center contacted the director of nursing at her home and told that people in the facility were deteriorating and dying. She immediately told them to move the residents from the second floor downstairs, where it was cooler, according to the nursing home.

By then it was too late.

"A lot of them died in an 'oven,' " said attorney Gary M. Cohen of Boca Raton, who is handling five negligence cases against the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills on behalf of survivors and families of the dead. "It's not the way to go. This is not how it's supposed to happen in a nursing home in the 21st century."

Hurricane Irma knocked out a transformer that powered the central air conditioning at the 152-bed facility Sept. 10, leaving residents for days to cope in suffocating heat.

As bodies were pulled out of the nursing home three days later, Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez said the building was "extremely hot" on the second floor. He would not say then whether all of the victims lived on the second floor, citing a newly launched criminal investigation.

Now, the Sun Sentinel has confirmed through friends and family of the dead that all eight who died Sept. 13 had lived on the top floor. Two of the four people who died in later days also had lived on the second floor.

The second floor housed the sickest, long-term care residents, some with dementia and others who were bedridden or receiving hospice care. Downstairs, the nursing home cared for a mix of people, including those who might eventually go home after recuperating from a stroke, joint replacement or other setback.

Before the storm hit, the nursing home told residents and their families they would not be moved and would be safe there. Studies show that moving very old people from nursing homes poses in increases the risk of hospitalization and death. But the Hollywood facility, like many others, had no generator to run the air conditioner in a power failure. The state does not require it.

During the three days the air conditioning didn't work, no staff ordered the building emptied or the residents moved across the street to Memorial Regional Hospital, only steps away, which had air conditioning, power and medical care. When rescuers began to discover the dead in room-to-room checks, it was clear that the people in the most critical condition were on the second floor.


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