The nursing home where residents died following a hurricane-induced air conditioning outage was not on the priority list for power restoration, according to the facility's utility provider and Broward County officials.
Emergency responders confirmed eight deaths last Wednesday at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, three days after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to the facility's air conditioning system.
For families, nursing home administrators and state and local officials charged with overseeing patient care, urgent questions remain about why the facility was unable to cool patients as temperatures climbed.
After major storms like Irma, utility companies have a priority list for who gets power back. First up: critical infrastructure, like hospitals, emergency operations centers and some corrections facilities and nursing homes. The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was not classified as critical infrastructure.
"Determining priorities for restoration is something that’s done in advance of hurricane season in partnership with communities," said Bryan Garner of Florida Power and Light, the nursing home’s power provider.
Garner and Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief say the nursing home was in a second tier of infrastructure -- behind “critical” but ahead of residential homes. Sharief says local officials gave it that designation using FPL guidance that puts nursing homes into a second tier.
"It doesn’t matter what tier they fell in at FPL," Sharief said. "The administrators, the owners of that facility and the people that were present taking care of those patients -- they should have reacted in the appropriate manner."
After they lost power, staff at the facility filed a service request to FPL. In a statement, Broward emergency officials said they got that request upgraded to a “mission critical” status.
Nursing home administrators did not respond to an interview request, but a spokesman provided a timeline in which the administrators say they were told last Monday that FPL was on the way, and told that again on Tuesday after the air conditioning still hadn’t been had restored.
Garner of FPL called the deaths "a tragedy." He said the utility followed its plan to restore power to facilities with the "critical infrastructure" designation first, and that "if you have a medical emergency, if you rely on electrically powered medical equipment, don’t wait for your power to be restored. Call 911, call for help."
The center is across the street from Memorial Regional Hospital, which officials say had power. In the timeline, nursing home administrators say they requested and received spot coolers from the hospital on Tuesday. The timeline says they first contacted emergency responders on Wednesday morning, when patients had heart problems and trouble breathing.
Sharief says staff at the nursing home -- which had been previously faulted by state regulators -- waited far too long.
"They’re to call 911 if they can’t help those patients," said the Broward County mayor.
Current state regulations require nursing homes to have alternate forms of power -- but that could be battery-operated fans instead of air conditioning.
On Saturday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced new rules that would require assisted living facilities and nursing homes in Florida to have a generator and sufficient fuel supplies to maintain a comfortable temperature for at least 96 hours. Nursing home administrators statewide say they support the governor's proposal but are concerned about the logistical and financial challenges of complying during this hurricane season.
In November, a new federal rule will go into effect requiring nursing homes have “alternate sources of energy to maintain temperatures to protect resident health and safety.”
Critics say that’s not strong enough because it doesn’t specify generators for air conditioning.
This post has been updated with information about proposed state rules requiring generators at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Due to an editing error, one reference to Barbara Sharief misstated her job title. Sharief is mayor of Broward County.