The temperature inside a Hollywood, Fla., nursing home soared to 99 degrees in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, making it a deathtrap for a dozen residents.
Under federal regulations, it shouldn’t have been higher than 81 degrees.
With a criminal investigation ongoing, medical officials and police had not revealed just how hot it became after Hurricane Irma knocked out the facility’s central air conditioning in September. A nurse who prompted an evacuation of the building three days later said at the time: "The temperature in the building was really warm."
The residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills struggled for 62 hours in the oppressive heat. Twelve died in what the Broward Medical Examiner’s Office ruled were homicides.
At least 10 of the 12 lived on the second floor. That’s where the temperature climbed to 99 degrees, according to a document filed by the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which oversees nursing homes.
Federal regulations say nursing homes must fix the problem if the temperature exceeds 81 degrees or must relocate residents.
Florida’s health care agency, in its filing, laid out just how widespread the ordeal became, revealing how many people were seriously sickened by the heat.
State health regulators reviewed the medical records of most of the building’s 141 residents and found 4 in 5 who lived on the top story suffered dehydration or other effects of heat exposure.
Those living downstairs fared better but still many also fell ill from the extreme heat and humidity. State health regulators said 44 percent of the 71 residents on the bottom floor suffered from dehydration or other heat-related symptoms.
The state cites the dehydration among residents in its claim that "the facility failed to provide appropriate health care" and did not ensure that the 12 who died were "free from neglect." The state alleges that nursing home officials did not to recognize the risk of the rising temperature and violated state law by not providing "comfortable and safe room temperature levels."
A lawyer and a public relations team hired by the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills could not be reached for comment.
In legal papers filed with the state in its defense, the nursing home has said it "properly monitored, hydrated and provided care and comfort for residents," while it waited for the power to be restored. In addition, the nursing home said that at no time "were any excessive temperatures experienced in the building."
An administrative law judge will consider all sides of the argument in hearings set to begin in late January in Fort Lauderdale.
A number of survivors and families of the dead are suing the nursing home, alleging that administrators did not properly prepare for the disaster or react to the dangerous conditions.
Some lawsuits claim the nursing home was understaffed and residents’ pleas for water went unanswered. At the time, the city of Hollywood was under a boil-water advisory. The nursing home had limited power from a generator to run lights and some equipment, but not the air conditioning.
In one lawsuit, survivor Clarice Damas, 86, claims the facility was "severely understaffed" and residents were "ignored" or "forgotten." She contends that the nursing home did not have enough ice and she asked for water and a fan but didn’t get them.
The facility’s director of nursing — the top supervisor — left the building Sept. 11, the day after the hurricane, and did not return until Sept. 13, the day all the residents were evacuated.
She told state regulators that she recalled the home having seven nurses on duty during the overnight shift when people began dying. Of those, three were highly skilled registered nurses and four were licensed practical nurses, who have lesser training.
But the home was short on nurses’ aides. Only five were on duty for a building with more than 140 residents, the director told the health care regulators. Experts contacted by the Sun Sentinel said there should have been three times as many working then.