Eight Hollywood nursing home residents died Wednesday morning in a building left without air conditioning after Irma roared through South Florida, according to Hollywood police and the city.
The home is directly across from a hospital.
Hollywood police have begun a criminal investigation into the deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, while the Agency for Health Care Administration and Department of Children & Families have begun their own investigations.
The owner of the nursing home also is an officer of Larkin Community Hospital, a medical center with a troubled history.
Gov. Rick Scott declared in a statement, "I'm going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place. Although the details of these reported deaths are still under investigation, this situation is unfathomable."
Later, Scott directed AHCA to issue an emergency moratorium for the facility, prohibiting it from admitting any patients until the order is lifted.
Tuesday afternoon, the center reported to AHCA that it had power and access to fans and spot coolers provided by Memorial Healthcare — Memorial Regional Hospital sits across the street. The hospital never reported losing power during the storm.
Like many places in Florida, the nursing home has been without power since being whipped by tropical storm-force winds with hurricane gusts on the edge of Hurricane Irma.
Long before this past week, however, the facility had a history of poor inspections.
The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills has a health inspection rating of "much below average" by the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration, which evaluates all long-term care facilities in the state for the U.S. government. Its "overall rating," which includes staffing, fire safety and health inspections, was listed as "below average."
The nursing home's licensee is Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, LLC, which is owned by a doctor named Jack Michel. State healthcare records list Michel as an officer and board member of the nursing home, with a controlling interest.
But the home also has a relationship with Larkin Community Hospital, which has a long history of running afoul of health care regulators. Michel is listed in state corporate records as Larkin's president, as well. In 2006, the U.S. Justice Department fined Larkin and its owners $15.4 million in a settlement of a civil fraud complaint.
A kitchen worker, Jean Lindor, said the center had power from a generator to cook — but no air conditioning. Miami's Mike Carvelli, whose mother is at the facility, said his brother was there earlier this week and found it "a little warm, but not uncomfortable" and there were portable air conditioning units in use.
Carvelli found staff members proactive after they evacuated his mother. Carvelli said the staff got him and his brother on a conference call to go over the medications and care for her Alzeimer's.
Flora Mitchell, a 61-year-old Hollywood resident, came down to the center to find her sister around noon Wednesday. Sweat dripping from her forehead, she said she'd been trying to get information from first responders to no avail. She said her 58-year-old sister, who can't talk or walk, has been there 10 years.
"I don't know if my sister is living," Mitchell said. "Nobody's telling us nothing."
At least three of Wednesday's eight deaths occurred at the nursing home. One resident already was dead when police got a call about someone having a heart attack. Hollywood police Chief Tom Sanchez said that call came in at either 4 a.m. or 6:25 a.m., but the hospital started moving patients at 7:15 a.m.
"It's extremely hot on the second floor of the facility," Sanchez said, but wouldn't specify if any of the six victims lived on the second floor of the two-floor building.
The rehab center's administrator, Jorge Carballo, said the home "is cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who were affected."
"The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills has evacuated this morning due to a prolonged power failure to the transformer which powered the facility's air conditioning system as a result of the hurricane. Unfortunately, early this morning several patients experienced distress and there were three fatalities at the facility and three at the hospital they were transferred to," Carballo added.
The Florida Health Care Association, a long-term care industry group, released a statement Wednesday morning framing the deaths within the context of Irma's brutal blow to the state.
"Our centers' first priority is always the safety and well-being of every resident in their care and they are doing everything in their power to meet their immediate and ongoing needs," wrote the association's executive director, Kristen Knapp.
"As with millions of other Floridians, our centers are coping with the loss of power and infrastructure in the communities that were most affected by the devastation. Approximately 150 facilities out of the nearly 700 facilities in the state do not currently have full power services restored.
"The loss of these individuals is a profound tragedy within the larger tragedy of Hurricane Irma, and we extend our deepest sympathies to the families of these residents," Knapp said.
In July 2015, Larkin Community Hospital issued a news release announcing it had won a bankruptcy auction and was taking over operations of the 152-bed Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, as well as other properties. The reason for the auction: The previous owner was in prison for Medicare fraud.
Larkin and Michel bid $24.6 million for the properties, the news release said. "This acquisition represents another step in the evolution of our hospital into an integrated delivery system," Michel, identified as Larkin's president, said in the news release.
An AHCA inspection of the rehab center dated March 31 faulted the center for several violations, including poor food and unsanitary conditions.