HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — The first 911 call from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills didn’t sound ominous: A nursing home patient had an abnormal heartbeat.
An hour later, came a second call: a patient had trouble breathing. Then came the third call. A patient had gone into cardiac arrest — and died.
Over the next few hours of Wednesday morning, the dire situation at the Rehabilitation Center for fragile, elderly people would come into clearer view. Three days after Hurricane Irma hit Florida, the center still didn’t have air conditioning, and it ultimately became the grimmest tragedy in a state already full of them. Eight people died and 145 patients had to be moved out of the stifling-hot facility, many of them on stretchers or in wheelchairs.
Authorities launched a criminal investigation to figure out what went wrong and who, if anyone, was to blame. Within hours of the tragedy, Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson made no effort to hide their anger and frustration that something like this could happen.
On Saturday, Scott ordered the directors of the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Elder Affairs to issue emergency rules to keep residents safe in health care facilities during emergencies.
This requires all assisted living facilities and nursing homes to obtain ample resources, including generators and the appropriate amount of fuel to maintain comfortable temperatures for at least 96-hours following a power outage.
In Hollywood on Wednesday morning, Judy Frum, the chief nursing officer at the air conditioned hospital just across the street from the rehabilitation center, was working in the Irma command center when the emergency room notified her that three patients had been brought in from the nursing home.
“It set off a red flag that something might be going on,” said Frum, who grabbed a colleague and hurried across the street.
When they arrived, paramedics were treating a critically ill patient near the entrance. She saw harried staff members trying to get patients into a room where fans were blowing.
The center had some electricity, but not enough to power the air conditioning.
Frum called her facility, Memorial Regional Hospital, to issue a mass casualty alert. As many as 100 hospital employees rushed over to help.
“The scene on site when I got there was chaotic,” said Randy Katz, Memorial’s emergency services director.
Word of the crisis soon reached relatives. Vendetta Craig searched frantically for her…