ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There was a disturbing scene at a nursing home in Hollywood, Fla., today - elderly residents suffering in stifling heat. They were found by first responders answering an early morning emergency call. Hurricane Irma apparently left the facility without air conditioning. Eight people are confirmed dead. Others are being treated at nearby hospitals. Police say they are now conducting a criminal investigation into what happened.
NPR's Jon Hamilton went to the nursing home earlier today and joins us now. John, what was the scene when you got there?
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Well, it was it was pretty grim. There were sirens, ambulances, fire trucks, a line of medical vans going by and this news helicopter flying overhead. And of course in front of the nursing home itself, the police had parked their crime scene investigation truck. We also saw several family members who were trying to get information about relatives they had in the facility. One woman who talked to us - her name was Flora Mitchell. She said her sister had been in this rehabilitation center for 10 years, and here's what she told us.
FLORA MITCHELL: I don't know if my sister's living. Nobody tells us nothing. We don't know nothing.
SHAPIRO: Jon, do you know how this happened?
HAMILTON: It's not entirely clear. We did learn some things from a press conference held by police and government officials. There have also been some statements by nursing home groups and regulators and even some government officials. So this is a place called the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, and it's both a rehabilitation center and a nursing home - so long-term care and then some people out of the hospital. And apparently the facility lost some but not all of its power after Hurricane Irma.
The thing is, as of yesterday, it was reporting that everything was OK, that they were using portable air conditioners and fans. Then early this morning, someone called 911. Police and fire units showed up. And when they went inside, they found a couple patients who were already dead and others in really bad shape. The police say - also said that when they got to the second floor, it was really hot. And so of course ultimately eight people have died. A dozen more were taken to a nearby emergency room, and 115 people were evacuated from this facility.
SHAPIRO: What have you been able to learn about the history of this facility?
HAMILTON: Not a whole lot, but it does have a somewhat troubled history. It appears that there's a pending lawsuit alleging negligence. Under a previous owner, the place was found to have committed Medicare fraud and I think had to pay a fine. There's been a bankruptcy, a change of ownership. And Medicare inspectors have given this place below average ratings. So there's some reason to - that people might want to keep the eye on this place.
SHAPIRO: Do you know whether this could have been prevented?
HAMILTON: There are some pretty strong indications that it could have. I mean nursing homes are supposed to have backup power and generators and have an emergency plan where they think about events like this. Also, all nursing homes are supposed to let the power company know that they are critical facilities that are supposed to get top priority when the power goes out. And it appears this facility didn't do that.
The other thing is, this place is right across the street from a hospital, and that hospital had power. Its emergency room was open. Its emergency room doctors and staff were ready to help. Help was only a few steps away, but it appears that the nursing home waited a very long time to ask for it.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jon Hamilton speaking with us from Miami. Thanks, Jon.
HAMILTON: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.