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Lawsuit Filed in Nursing Home Death Investigation as Police Say A/C Was Not Fully Working

Stepped-up safety checks came after the deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills

An emergency lawsuit has been filed by the family of one of eight people killed in a sweltering nursing home in Hollywood Hills following Hurricane Irma.

Lawyers for the family of 99-year-old Albertina Vega are seeking the release of records from the Rehabilitation Center, hoping to shed light on what took place Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

A state investigation continues into the deaths -- three of which occurred in the facility and five more at area hospitals -- as lawyers for the Vega family say the center "neglected" her inside instead of transferring her to Memorial Hospital, located directly across the street.

Hollywood police said Thursday that the Broward County facility had some power but the building's air conditioning system was not fully functional.  

In one of the latest actions to protect older residents in storm-ravaged Florida, firefighters helped relocate 122 people late Wednesday from two assisted living centers near Orlando that had been without power since Hurricane Irma hit. Elsewhere, facilities lacking electricity statewide tried to keep residents cool with dampened cloths and urged utilities to work quickly. 

Stepped-up safety checks came after the deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which shocked Florida's top leaders even as they surveyed destruction from a storm that spread its punishing effects across the entire state. 

"Unfathomable," Gov. Rick Scott said of the nursing home deaths. "Inexcusable," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson added. 

Scott also announced Thursday night that the nursing home will no longer receive state Medicaid funds. He said he directed the Agency for Health Care Administration to terminate the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills as a Medicaid provider. The program provides health care for low-income individuals and families.

Around the state, 64 nursing homes were still waiting for full power Friday, a number that had dropped nearly 20 from the previous day, according to the Florida Health Care Association. 

In Coral Gables, an apartment building was evacuated after authorities said its lack of power made it unsafe for elderly tenants. And at the 15,000-resident Century Village retirement community in Pembroke Pines, where there were also widespread outages, rescue workers went door to door in the 94-degree heat checking on residents and bringing ice, water and meals. 

An assisted living facility in Wilton Manors that has been without power for several days evacuated 57 residents on Thursday as a precaution.

"We are on emergency power, we have temporary cooling inside, but obviously it's been enough days we haven't been able to get up," said Ralph Marrinson, owner of Williamsburg Landing Assisted Living Facility. "We don't know when FPL is gonna get us up. So as a precaution we're moving everybody over so they'll be more comfortable. We've accounted for everybody and everything is in good shape."

The elderly residents at the Robert King High Towers in Little Havana were also still without power Thursday. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez stopped by to drop off ice and water.

The building has a generator but residents say their elevators keep breaking down, forcing them to take the stairs.

"We are like in jail, because we cannot go down. I had a problem with my back, if I go down I have to sleep in the parking lot because I am not sure that the elevator is going to work to come up," said 80-year-old resident Ariceli Milian.

For the elderly outside assisted living facilities, such as 94-year-old Mary Dellaratta, getting help can depend on the attentiveness of neighbors, family and local authorities. The widow evacuated her Naples condominium with the help of police the day before the storm hit. After the hurricane passed, a deputy took her back home and another brought her food. A deacon from her Roman Catholic church has also stopped by. 

But with no family in the area and neighbors who are gone or unwilling to help, the New York native feels cut off from the world. 

"I have nobody," she said. 

The electricity is out in her condo, so there's no television for news. She also can't raise the electric-powered hurricane shutters that cover her kitchen windows. 

Near the point of despair, remembering to take her medicine or locating her cane are almost insurmountable challenges. 

"I don't know what to do. How am I going to last here?" she said, as a tear rolled down her cheek. 

Including the nursing home deaths, at least 25 people in Florida have died under Irma-related circumstances, and six more in South Carolina and Georgia, many of them well after the storm had passed. The death toll across the Caribbean stood at 38. 

In Hollywood, the Rehabilitation Center said the hurricane had knocked out a transformer that powered the air conditioning. Broward County said the home alerted officials Tuesday that it had lost power, but when asked if it had any medical needs or emergencies, it did not request help. 

Florida Power & Light said that the facility was not on Broward County's top priority list for power restoration. 

An initial investigation has determined that the facility had some power but the air conditioning system was not fully functional, Hollywood police said Thursday.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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