Fla. lawmaker warned officials before retirement home tragedy

Fla. lawmaker warned officials before retirement home tragedy
© Greg Nash

A day before eight residents from the same Florida nursing home died, Rep. Frederica WilsonFrederica WilsonSheriff's deputy reassigned after dressing as Frederica Wilson in blackface: report Dem rep renews feud with John Kelly: He 'owes the nation an apology' Overnight Defense: Trump wraps up Asia trip | Friends say WH chief of staff is no politician | Army lifts ban on mental health waivers | Four injured in Taliban bombing MORE (D-Fla.) joined other state and federal officials on a Hurricane Irma recovery conference call and warned the situation could quickly turn deadly if power was not restored to local senior facilities.

The Florida Democrat’s phone had been ringing nonstop since Hurricane Irma knocked out power to much of South Florida on Sept. 10. Wilson has 100 long-term care facilities in her Miami-area district, and many were begging her to help get the power — and the air conditioning — back on.

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“Immediately, I started to get calls. A lot of them didn’t have power, and that’s why I was raising a concern,” Wilson told The Hill of the Sept. 12 conference call hosted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“My message was: They needed to assist with turning the lights on and getting the generators fixed in those nursing homes, because someone is going to die,” Wilson continued.

Wilson’s account of the call suggests that officials at all levels of government — including FEMA, Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) office and members of Congress — were all made aware of the dangerous and deteriorating conditions at local nursing homes at least 12 hours before the first resident died at the sweltering Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

A Wilson aide who listened in on the Sept. 12 call said the congresswoman had warned that dozens of nursing homes without air conditioning were facing emergencies given the stifling Florida heat and the poor health conditions of many elderly residents. The 2 p.m. call was one of FEMA’s daily conference calls held before and after the storm to help government officials coordinate their response and give elected officials an opportunity to voice concerns or share information.

“Legislators get to ask questions, and they are supposed to follow up,” explained Wilson, who joined many of these daily FEMA calls. “You want to ask me if they are good about it? I don’t think so.”

Eleven deaths are now being blamed on the air-conditioning failure at the Hollywood Hills rehab center after Hurricane Irma; eight of those deaths occurred during a 12-hour window on Sept. 13. Florida and Hollywood authorities have opened criminal investigations into the deaths, and the state has since cut off Medicaid funding and rescinded the facility’s license, shutting it down.

It’s not clear anyone could have prevented those deaths by heeding Wilson’s warning. The 74-year-old congresswoman isn’t casting blame on any individual or agency, saying all levels of government, the nursing home and the power company, Florida Power & Light, failed the victims and their families.

“It’s like tentacles of an octopus. There is so much blame to go around,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s account comes on the heels of a New York Times report that detailed the numerous calls the Hollywood Hills center made before the deaths to the power company, state health and emergency officials, and Scott’s personal cellphone, asking for someone to repair a damaged transformer that powered the air-conditioning system.

The CBS affiliate in Miami reported that the rehab center left four voice messages on Scott’s cellphone during the 36 hours leading up to the first fatality. Scott’s office said the voice messages were passed along to the proper state agencies, and then deleted from the governor’s phone.

Scott has repeatedly said the rehab facility should have called 911 if administrators believed their residents’ lives were at risk.

A FEMA spokesperson referred questions to Florida state officials about what actions were taken, if any, after Wilson warned of the potential of nursing home fatalities on the Sept. 12 call.

“As natural disasters threaten, FEMA maintains regular communications with delegations representing both expected and known impacted areas,” the FEMA spokesperson said. “As state and local officials identify resource needs during a disaster, FEMA works to support their response and recovery efforts when those needs exceed their capability to respond.”

Kerri Wyland, a Scott spokeswoman, said the governor himself did not participate on the call, though a Scott aide did listen in. That staffer did not recall Wilson’s remarks.

“FEMA hosted this call, and their headquarters staff coordinated all responses and follow-up information,” Wyland said.

Wilson wasn’t the only Florida legislator sounding the alarm after Irma about what might happen if senior facilities continued operating without power. On the evening of Sept. 12, after the first House votes of that week, a visibly upset Rep. Lois FrankelLois Jane FrankelWe will fight for our DREAMers Overnight Regulation: Trump issues order to ease ObamaCare rules | NRA opposes bill banning bump stocks | Dems propose writing campus sex assault guidance into law Dems unveil bill to write campus sexual assault guidance into law MORE (D-Fla.) descended the Capitol steps and told a couple of reporters that she was getting reports of local nursing homes that had lost power in the storm.

September in Florida feels hot, humid and miserable without air conditioning, she said, so elderly people were suffering inside these buildings. And some nursing facilities were simply dropping dozens of their residents off at local hospitals, which were some of the only facilities with working air conditioning but already at capacity.

Wilson said she believes the deaths at Hollywood Hills could have been avoided had there been tougher regulations in place.

In 2006, while Wilson was a state senator, the Florida state legislature tried to pass a law requiring nursing homes to have backup generators that could keep the air conditioning running in the event of a natural disaster. But the industry pushed back, complaining of the high cost of such regulations.

Scott has now ordered all nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to obtain generators within 60 days.

“It’s government’s fault,” Wilson said. “These nursing homes should have had generators and oversight from the government before they got money for Medicare and Medicaid.”

When she learned that eight residents at Hollywood Hills had died just hours after her warning, Wilson said she was “livid.”

“I’m still sounding the alarm because I don’t want this to ever happen again,” she said. “Because this is unconscionable in America. We should not be losing that many seniors in a power outage.”