FORT LAUDERDALE — A Florida nursing home under investigation for the deaths of 13 patients after Hurricane Irma says in a letter to Congress that staff members did everything possible but couldn't overcome a lack of power to the central air conditioning system.
In a letter released Monday, Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills attorney Geoffrey D. Smith told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that employees followed proper procedures between the air conditioner losing power on Sept. 10 and when the deaths began on Sept. 13. The committee is investigating the deaths, as are local police detectives and the state.
Smith said managers made repeated calls to Florida Power & Light, the state health care administration and Gov. Rick Scott in an effort to get the air conditioning power restored, but got nowhere. Meanwhile, he says the facility's main power never went out and employees used portable air conditioners and fans to cool the patients and kept them hydrated.
Smith said staffers had been closely monitoring patients for two days when the deaths began without warning. He said the temperature inside the facility never exceeded 81 degrees, which would be within standards.
Scott's office issued a statement Monday, saying, "This facility had a responsibility to its patients to protect life during emergencies. We must learn why this facility chose not to evacuate their patients to the hospital across the street or call 911."
FPL says it followed the priority list for restoration as agreed to by Broward County.
Smith wrote in his letter that from Sept. 10 to 12, the staff monitored the facility's 150 patients, and none exhibited any sign of heat exhaustion. He said that about 3 a.m. Sept. 13, several patients began showing signs of respiratory and cardiac distress. He said the staff summoned paramedics for each patient and followed proper protocols.
He said that about 6 a.m., Hollywood police officers and staffers from Memorial Regional Hospital, the trauma center across the street, declared a mass-casualty situation. Officers and hospital staffers have said the facility seemed excessively hot. Detectives took a temperature reading, but that has not been released.
All patients were evacuated to Memorial over the next three hours. Three patients died at the nursing home, five later that day at Memorial and five in subsequent days at the hospital. A 14th death was later determined not to be related. The dead ranged in age from 57 to 99, with most from their 70s to 90s.
Smith rejected criticism that the center should have evacuated its patients to Memorial earlier, saying that would violate established emergency procedures.
"Hospitals are critical facilities that are supposed to be used for individual cases," not as mass evacuation centers, he wrote.