Days after Hurricane Irma slashed a destructive swath through Florida, it’s still unclear exactly how much damage the state and its inhabitants have suffered. And it might be weeks — or even months — before the massive storm’s impact is known.
From the Keys to Naples to Jacksonville, Irma wreaked havoc on homes and businesses, turned off lights and air conditioning for more than half the state and caused severe damage in the agriculture industry.
But the most shocking result of Irma was the deaths of eight elderly nursing home residents — literally across the street from a major hospital — in Hollywood after the nursing facility’s air conditioning stopped working. The tragedy, which drew national attention, created a furor among local and state officials, including Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio.
The week brought some other news, but, with more than two-thirds of Florida’s counties qualifying for disaster relief and reeling from Irma, nobody paid much attention.
By week’s end, power was being steadily restored, many streets were cleared of debris, and cleanup was well underway.
Now may not be the time to begin the Monday-morning quarterbacking about how – or if – the state could have done better to prepare for the storm or to cope with its aftermath.
But the heartbreaking deaths of the eight nursing home residents will certainly be at the forefront of the scrutiny.
“We throw our elderly away,” Bendetta Craig, whose 87-year-old mother lived at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, said. “That’s my mother, somebody’s mother, somebody’s sister, somebody’s father. They’re not dollar signs.”
The nursing home deaths left people in Florida and throughout the nation wondering how such an event could happen.
“Every facility that is charged with caring for patients must take every action and precaution to keep their patients safe – especially patients that are in poor health,” Scott tweeted Wednesday after the news broke about The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.
Scott’s administration shut down admissions to the Broward County facility on Wednesday, after the seniors died and the remaining residents were evacuated. Scott also ordered the Agency for Health Care Administration on Thursday to oust the facility from the Medicaid program.
“It is clear that this facility cannot be responsible for Florida’s vulnerable patients, and therefore the state will stop them from providing care,” Scott’s office said in a statement announcing the Medicaid decision.
Local officials have launched a criminal investigation into the deaths, and state agencies are also investigating the situation. Nelson and Rubio called on federal health officials to get involved.
Nelson described it as an “inexcusable tragedy that frail patients would die of heat exhaustion without it being recognized.”
In a lengthy statement, nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said the facility did not lose power during Hurricane Irma, but it lost a transformer that powered the air-conditioning system. The statement said the nursing home contacted Florida Power & Light and followed up about when repairs would be made.
“In compliance with state regulations, the center did have a generator on standby in the event it would be needed to power life safety systems,” Carballo said in the statement. “The center also had seven days of food, water, ice and other supplies, including gas for the generator. Additionally, when the transformer powering the A/C went down, staff set up mobile cooling units and fans to cool the facility. Our staff continually checked on our residents’ well-being — our most important concern — to ensure they were hydrated and as comfortable as possible.”
The facility is rated “below average” on a federal scorecard that includes information about issues such as inspections, staffing and quality of care. The federal Medicare.gov website includes a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services report that said a health inspection was conducted by the state March 31 and found a series of deficiencies at the facility. While some of the deficiencies appeared likely to affect few residents, the report indicated other more-serious deficiencies were found in areas such as food safety, disposal of garbage and infection-control programs.
The Hollywood tragedy also revealed that dozens of nursing homes were without electricity or had been evacuated because of Irma.
`IT’S GOING TO BE A LONG ROAD’
After Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys and the southwestern portion of the state Sunday, curfews were imposed in many areas, much of the Keys remained closed, and millions of people continued to lack electricity as cleanup work was expected to reach into the billions of dollars.
The state was also coping with intense flooding on both coasts and the interior, where rising rivers left some houses marooned in the middle of marshes.
Later in the week, tempers flared when officials barred Keys evacuees from returning to the lower islands.
“I know for our entire state, but especially the Keys, it’s going to be a long road. There is a lot of damage,” Scott said after viewing the damage from the air Monday. “I know everyone wants to get back to normal. I know everyone wants to get started, but you’ve got to be patient. We’ve got to get the first responders to the Keys. We’ve got to get water going again. We’ve got to get electricity going again. We’ve got to get sewers going again. It’s going to take a lot of time.”
On Tuesday, the governor teamed up with former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow to thank volunteers and workers at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee and in hard-hit Lee County.
“In the midst of a really tough time, you know I think so many people that were hurting have something to hold on to because there were so many volunteers … and they knew there were people in it with them,” Tebow said during the Tallahassee stop. “It doesn’t take away their pain, and it doesn’t take away their fear and doubt of the unknown, but it does give them a little comfort to know that there are people battling with them and loving and supporting them.”
President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, joined Scott and his wife, Ann, to tour the damage in Southwest Florida on Thursday.
Trump handed out hoagies to storm-addled survivors in Naples.
Trump praised Scott and thanked first responders, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military for how they handled the lead-up to the storm and were dealing with recovery efforts.
“And I know you’re also in the process, but to think of the incredible power of that storm. And while people unfortunately passed, it was such a small number that nobody would have — people thought thousands and thousands of people may have their lives ended. And the number is a very small number which is a great tribute to you,” the president said.
`WET FEET’ AND EXTENSIVE DAMAGE
Parts of Florida’s agriculture industry are in “tatters” as rural communities continue to face severe conditions after the storm, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Thursday.
Putnam said the storm hammered citrus, vegetable and sugar cane growers, though he didn’t put a cost estimate on the damage. And as many farmers and residents of Florida’s rural counties wait for power to be restored, they will soon be inundated with mosquitoes because of water left behind by Irma, he noted.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor, will be in Florida on Monday to tour the damage as the state seeks federal aid, Putnam told reporters at the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.
Putnam, a Bartow resident who is running for governor next year, called the impacts “extensive” for growers, particularly those in the struggling citrus industry. Even before Irma, the 2016-2017 orange harvest was down 16 percent from the prior year, while the grapefruit harvest dropped 28 percent in the same time.
In Southwest Florida, between 70 and 80 percent of fruit “is on the ground,” and widespread flooding will bring further woes, Putnam said.
“Citrus trees cannot tolerate wet feet. They can’t tolerate wet roots,” he said. “And we will continue to see these numbers of losses grow over time.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys and Southwest Florida on Sunday, leaving a trail of destruction through the state and cutting off power to millions of residents and businesses.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Although the details of these reported deaths are still under investigation, this situation is unfathomable,” – Gov. Rick Scott, after news broke of the deaths of residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in Broward County.
Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.