The worst loss of human life in Florida in the wake of Irma didn’t happen on one of low-lying towns on the lower Florida Keys where the eye of the storm first made landfall with full force.
It didn’t happen on Key West, by far the biggest population center near Irma’s initial landfall.
It didn’t happen when the wind, the rain, and the storm surge were taking their toll.
And it didn’t happen as the inevitable consequence of a natural disaster.
Instead, this tragic drama would not have unfolded without a familiar combination of: (a) U.S.-style bottom-line health care; (b) the Republican addiction to afflicting the already afflicted and comforting the already comfortable as demonstrated by the laws enacted or not enacted by the GOP-dominated Florida legislature, and; (c) a confluence of bad and/or inexplicable decisions by individual actors on scene or just off-stage.
The worst human tragedy took place days after the hurricane, in a nursing home in Hollywood, just a few miles north of the border between Miami-Dade and Broward counties. There, ten elderly people died needlessly after several days living in stifling heat at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which lost its air conditioning when the big storm hit.
Just across the street from the nursing home is Memorial Regional Hospital, which had working air conditioning and an emergency room able to treat patients in severe distress.
But no patients were moved to the hospital until fire department emergency technicians responding to a 911 call found three dead people on the second floor of the nursing facility and raised the alarm.
In 2006, a bill was introduced in the Florida legislature requiring all nursing homes to install generators capable of cooling and running their facilities, according to the account published over the weekend in The Miami Herald.
The bill should have sailed through the state legislature. Florida has one of the highest percentages of elderly in the country. The state is full of nursing homes where some of the residents require oxygen just to stay alive. Other patients are frail or have medical conditions that make them susceptible to perishing if exposed to high temperatures over many hours, or worse, for several days.
Power outages are especially common in a state in the path of hurricanes that can knock out electricity over a large area for prolonged periods. Hurricanes happen in summer or early fall when the temperatures are even hotter than usual.
The combination of a huge vulnerable elderly population housed in nursing homes and fearsome storms that hit the state frequently and during the hottest months should have made the 2006 proposal mandating nursing homes to have generators a no-brainer. Instead, legislators treated as a non-starter.
The reason for that is clear. In the United States, under our system of mercenary medicine, “long-term care” is an “industry,” and industries have lobbyists who are skilled in buttering the bread or breaking the backs of legislators. The electrical industry, namely Florida Power and Light (FPL), has lobbyists too, and FPL doesn’t like the idea of people or institutions using alternative power supplies, whether it is rooftop solar panels or generators.
The Republican state legislature almost invariably does the bidding of lobbyists for all sorts of powerful industries regardless of the public interest or common sense. The people who get hurt, like fishing guides trying to sell their services in coastal areas heavily polluted by the wastes generated by agribusiness or nursing home patients, don’t have such influential advocates in the state’s capital.
This kind of culpable collusion between vested interests and politicians is standard operating procedure in Tallahassee. But what happened in ultra-right-wing House of Representatives in 2006 goes beyond the garden variety corruption of politics by special-interest and clout. On a matter of life and death, the legislature not only sank legislation mandating generators at nursing homes but the lower house voted down even a weak bill that would have required only some nursing homes to have generators. That’s criminal.
The Hollywood police department has started a criminal investigation as to exactly what happened at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. That’s necessary. Home video shot by the relatives of patients at the nursing home shows that many of the residents were in obvious distress. It’s unthinkable that the staff didn’t notice.
The decision to move patients to the hospital across the street should have been another no-brainer. Why didn’t anyone take the initiative and just do it? Did their bosses at Larkin Hospital, which controls the nursing home, veto the idea and if so why?
The staff of the nursing home should be held accountable for the tragedy. But it should not end there. Ultimate blame lies with the state legislature, which in 2006 acted with absolute irresponsibility and an utter lack of concern for human life.
Who will hold it accountable? The people of Florida? We can hope. Then again, they elected all those jerks to the legislature in the first place.
Miami’s CBS Local 4 reporter Jim DeFede reveals that Governor Rick Scott was alerted at least three times of the problems at the Hollywood Hills Rehab Center. Although he had given the Center’s administrators his cell phone and urged them to call him if they needed anything, which they called, nothing came of the calls, that he did not answer. Florida Power & Light, who was also called and alerted of the emergency situation, promised to take action but never did. What follows is the DeFede report on Channel 4: