1. Opinion

Editorial: No Floridian should survive hurricane, die in heat

Let's get this straight: Senior citizens survived Hurricane Irma only to die afterward in the heat? It is beyond outrageous that eight residents of a nursing home in Hollywood died in a building left without air conditioning after the hurricane hit South Florida. A criminal investigation is under way, and the state needs to work with local agencies across the state to review the standards that all types of facilities caring for vulnerable seniors must meet in an emergency. This was a preventable tragedy that cannot be repeated.

The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Broward County reported it had electricity, but the storm apparently knocked out a transformer that powered the facility's air conditioning. At least three of Wednesday's deaths occurred at the nursing home. Police said that shortly after they responded to a distress call, the facility started moving patients, sending dozens to area hospitals, including one just across the street that never lost power. By late Wednesday afternoon, five more had died. Hollywood police Chief Tom Sanchez said investigators believe the deaths were heat-related. Other seniors were treated for dehydration, difficulty breathing and other heat-related illnesses. The dead included five women and three men, ages 70 to 99.

Gov. Rick Scott declared he would "aggressively demand answers" to the tragedy, which he called "unfathomable." He also directed the state health care agency, which is investigating, to impose a moratorium barring the facility from accepting new patients. The center has a state health inspection rating of below average and has links to a local hospital with a troubled history.

Already, those involved with ensuring the patients' safety have been trading blame. In general, Florida requires nursing homes to maintain a "safe" temperature of about 80 degrees, in addition to three days' worth of backup power and emergency supplies. At issue is whether the nursing home clearly identified its power problems to authorities, whether the power company reacted in a timely manner and whether local emergency management officials took adequate steps to ensure the facility was operating properly.

The three state and local investigations need to clearly identify what went wrong and who was to blame. They also need to provide a chronology of how these victims fell through so many cracks. Though no deaths have been reported in the Tampa Bay area, several senior living facilities went without power this week in the aftermath of Irma. The director of an assisted living facility without power in Hillsborough County said he pleaded repeatedly for help as his patients sweltered; county officials said they were unaware of the situation. A senior living center in Clearwater went days without electricity and cool air and with a generator to power only the elevator and emergency lights. The owner of that facility brought in food. But authorities in both cases essentially left these seniors to fend for themselves.

In Pinellas County alone, officials count 55 nursing homes and 125 assisted living facilities. Florida has the highest percentage of residents 65 years old and older in the nation. The avoidable deaths in South Florida and the episodes related to heat in Tampa Bay facilities require a thorough state and local review of regulations regarding nursing homes, ALFs and other operations catering to seniors who are the most vulnerable. Protocols during hurricanes, requirements for air conditioning and priorities for restoring power should be examined. No senior citizen in any of these facilities should fear dying after a hurricane because they could not stand the heat.