Eight elderly in nursing home among more than 80 dead in Hurricane Irma

Eight patients at a sweltering Florida nursing home have died after Hurricane Irma knocked out the air conditioning.

Hollywood police chief Tom Sanchez said investigators believe the deaths at the Rehabilitation Centre in Hollywood Hills were heat-related, and added: "The building has been sealed off and we are conducting a criminal investigation."

Three patients were found dead at the nursing home early yesterday and five more died in hospital after more than 100 in all were evacuated, many on stretchers or in wheelchairs.

"It's a sad state of affairs," Mr Sanchez 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."

Governor Rick Scott called on Florida emergency workers to immediately check on nursing homes and assisted living facilities to make sure patients are safe, and he ordered an investigation into what he called an "unfathomable" situation.

"I am demanding answers," he tweeted.

The home said in a statement that the hurricane knocked out a transformer that powered the air conditioning.

Exactly how the deaths happened was under investigation, with Mr 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 in the nursing home.

Across the street from the nursing home sat a fully air-conditioned hospital, Memorial Regional.

It emerged that the manager of the nursing home where six people died has a history of healthcare fraud accusations.

Federal court records show the US Attorney's Office in Miami filed civil charges in 2004 against Dr Jack Michel and Larkin Health Systems, among others.

That company owns The Rehabilitation Centre at Hollywood Hills, where three patients were found dead and three others died in hospital or on the way.

In 1997, before Dr Michel owned Larkin, federal prosecutors say he was part of a kickback scheme that involved paying doctors for referrals and admission to Larkin Community Hospital.

Prosecutors say that after he bought the hospital in 1998, Michel and others fraudulently increased the number of patients at the facility, along with their Medicare and Medicaid revenues, by bringing in patients from nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. The case was settled in 2006 for 15.4 million dollars.

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 wake, including tree-clearing accidents and lethal fumes from generators.

Not counting the nursing home deaths, at least 14 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.

Also in the Miami area, a Coral Gables apartment building was evacuated after authorities determined a lack of power made it unsafe for elderly tenants, while officers arrived at the huge Century Village retirement community in Pembroke Pines to help people on upper floors without access to working lifts.

More than half the community of 15,000 residents lacked power.

In addition, at least five people died and more than a dozen were treated after breathing carbon monoxide fumes from generators in the Orlando, Miami and Daytona Beach areas.

In the battered Florida Keys, meanwhile, county officials pushed back against a preliminary estimate from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that 25% of all homes in the Keys were destroyed and nearly all the rest were heavily damaged.

"Things look real damaged from the air, but when you clear the trees and all the debris, it's not much damage to the houses," said Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers.

The Keys felt Irma's full fury when the hurricane roared in on Sunday with 130mph winds but the extent of the damage has been an unanswered question for days because some places have been unreachable.

In Marathon Key, a Publix grocery store opened under police guard on Tuesday, but residents could buy only 20 items each, and no cigarettes or alcohol allowed, said 70-year-old retiree Elaine Yaquinto.

She said she had yet to see any state or federal agencies or utility companies working on the ground yet. Her home had no electricity or running water, apart from a trickle of cold water that was good enough for a shower.

"It made me feel like normal," she said.

President Donald Trump's homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said the federal government is working to help Florida Keys residents secure shelter through rental assistance, hotels or pre-manufactured housing. Mr Trump plans to visit Florida on Thursday.

For many of Irma's victims, the days ahead are likely to be soggy, sweaty, dark and discouraging. One of the biggest worries is the fate of Florida's many senior citizens.

The long-time retirement destination has the highest proportion of people 65 and older of any US state.

AP


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