HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Gov. Rick Scott directed the Agency for Health Care Administration to issue an emergency moratorium Wednesday for the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, where eight people died after an air-conditioning issue that forced evacuations from the nursing home.
All patients have been removed from the rehabilitation center, and the moratorium immediately prevents the facility from admitting any patients until the order is lifted.
The shutdown is necessary to protect the lives and the safety of frail elders, according to a news release from the AHCA.
Earlier in the day, Scott made it clear that he is demanding answers on the facility. He previously ordered the AHCA and the Department of Children and Families to investigate the facility.
It was shortly after 4 a.m. Wednesday when paramedics and fire-rescue crews were called to the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.
"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," nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said in a statement.
Hollywood police Chief Tomas Sanchez confirmed that eight people had died and 115 patients were evacuated from the center.
"We're conducting a criminal investigation into the deaths that occurred here," Sanchez said.
Several residents from the center could be seen sitting on wheelchairs outside the nursing home, next to the hospital.
An adjacent building, Larkin Community Hospital, was also evacuated. Eighteen patients there were relocated as a result of the investigation.
The victims who died have been identified as Bobby Owens, 84; Manuel Mario Medieta, 96; Miguel Antonio Franco, 92; Estella Hendricks, 71; Gail Nova, 71; Carolyn Eatherly, 78; Betty Hibbard, 84; and Albertina Vega, 99.
The causes of death have yet to be determined.
Carballo said three of the eight patients died at the facility and the others died at the hospital they were taken to.
"Facility administration 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," Carballo said.
Local 10 News reporter Jenise Fernandez spoke to the man who has been trying to repair the AC. Airstron employee Dave Long said that a fuse needed to cool the AC unit popped out during Hurricane Irma and needs to be repaired. He said he's been calling Florida Power & Light for days to get it fixed.
"There's nothing we can do," Long said. "We've been calling and calling. ... It just doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and I can't do anything until we get that fuse popped back in."
Long described the ordeal as "frustrating."
He said it would only take about 30 minutes once the fuse is fixed for the AC to be restored.
"Well, I came here after the storm on Monday and we saw the fuse was out, but we called at that time and now it's, what, Wednesday, and the fuse is still out and I can't do anything," Long said.
All the patients were taken to area hospitals, including Memorial Regional Hospital.
"We don't have specific numbers on the conditions of each of the patients involved," city spokeswoman Raelin Storey said.
Dr. Randy Katz, the medical director at Memorial Regional Hospital, said his staff "quickly identified some issues inside of the facility."
"Most of the patients have been treated for respiratory distress, dehydration and heat-related issues," Katz said.
Katz said at least a dozen other patients were in emergency care. He said the death toll could rise.
Family members rushed to the hospitals after finding out where their loved ones were taken.
One woman who spoke to reporters said she had been calling FPL and the facility for days on behalf of her mother to find out when the AC would be restored.
"I kept calling," the woman said. "And I said, 'This is life-threatening.'"
The woman said helping restore nursing homes to their standard conditions should be a top priority after a hurricane.
Rob Gould, vice president and chief communications officer for FPL, said the utility company met with Broward County officials in March to identify "top-tier critical infrastructure" facilities in the event of a massive power outage. He said the nursing home was not identified as such.
"We do know that facilities such as Memorial Regional Hospital across the street, which was with power, is listed as a top-tier critical infrastructure facility," Gould said.
Gould said parts of the facility were energized by FPL. He said the tragedy points to the need to have a plan in place when it comes to emergency preparation.
"I am going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place," Scott said in a statement earlier Wednesday. "Although the details of these reported deaths are still under investigation, this situation is unfathomable."
Scott said if the investigation uncovers "that anyone wasn't acting in the best interests of their patients, we will hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law."
Numerous assisted living facilities were evaluated throughout South Florida after the incident, including the Bayview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Miami Beach, where more than 100 patients were evaluated.
The facility also did not have working AC, and the residents were all moved to other locations via buses and trolleys.
A city spokeswoman said in a news release that Hollywood police officers conducted welfare checks on 42 nursing homes, assisted living and critical care facilities throughout the day.
Memorial Healthcare Systems has established a hotline for families of the patients who were taken to its facilities for care. The number is 954-265-1074.