HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Eight patients at a sweltering nursing home died after Hurricane Irma knocked out the air conditioning, raising fears Wednesday about the safety of Florida's 4 million senior citizens amid power outages that could last for days.
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."
Gov. Rick Scott called on Florida emergency workers to immediately check on all nursing homes to make sure patients are safe, and he vowed to punish anyone found culpable in the deaths.
"This situation is unfathomable," he said.
The home said in a statement that the hurricane had knocked out a transformer that powered the AC.
The five women and three men ranged in age from their 70s to 99.
Exactly how the deaths happened was under investigation, with Sanchez saying authorities have not ruled anything out, including carbon-monoxide poisoning from generators. He also said investigators will look into how many windows were open.
Across the street from the stifling nursing home sat a fully air-conditioned hospital, Memorial Regional.
Broward County said the nursing home had alerted the county emergency operations center Tuesday that it had lost power, but when asked if it had any medical needs or emergencies, it did not request help.
"It's a sad state of affairs," the police chief said. "We all have elderly people in facilities, and we all know we depend on those people in those facilities to care for a vulnerable elderly population."
The deaths came as people trying to put their lives back together in hurricane-stricken Florida and beyond confronted a multitude of new hazards in the storm's aftermath, including tree-clearing accidents and lethal generator fumes.
Not counting the nursing home deaths, at least 17 people in Florida have died under Irma-related circumstances, and six more in South Carolina and Georgia, many of them well after the storm had passed. The death toll across the Caribbean stood at 38.
At least six people died of apparent carbon-monoxide poisoning from generators in Florida. A Tampa man died after the chain saw he was using to remove trees recoiled and cut his carotid artery.
In Hollywood, four patients were found dead at the nursing home early Wednesday after emergency workers received a call about a person with a heart attack, and four more died later at a hospital, authorities said.
Altogether, more than 100 patients there were found to be suffering in the heat and were evacuated, many on stretchers or in wheelchairs. Patients were treated for dehydration, breathing difficulties and other heat-related ills, authorities said.
Nursing homes in Florida are required by state and federal law to file an emergency plan that includes evacuation plans for residents. County officials released documents showing that the Hollywood facility was in compliance with that regulation and that it held a hurricane drill with its staff in October.
Calls to the owner and other officials at the Hollywood home were not immediately returned, but the facility's administrator, Jorge Caballo, said in a statement that it was "cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome."
Through a representative, Carballo told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper that the home has a back-up generator but that it does not power the air conditioning.
The nursing home was bought at a bankruptcy auction two years ago after its previous owner went to prison for Medicare fraud, according to news reports at the time of the sale.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulates nursing homes, gives the 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.
The number of people without electricity in the steamy late-summer heat was down to 6.8 million. Utility officials warned it could take more than a week for power to be fully restored. The number of people in shelters fell to less than 13,000.