HOLLYWOOD, Fla. ― Almost every night, Jacqueline Ventura makes the five-minute drive from her house to the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills to see her mother, who is 82 and has dementia.
The visits have become second nature to Ventura, and mainly involve feeding her mother, who starts to get confused and nervous if she goes a few days without seeing her daughter. But Tuesday night was different.
Her mother looked weaker than ever that night, as temperatures in the building rose even higher than the muggy air outside. There hadn’t been air conditioning in the facility since Hurricane Irma hit on Sunday, and Ventura’s mom was sweating.
Staff promised Ventura that portable fans and air conditioning units would provide temporary relief for patients while they waited for the utility company to fix a broken fuse. She trusted the nursing home staff were doing all they could given the circumstances, but she couldn’t shake the bad feeling she had.
Ventura’s nervousness didn’t go unnoticed at home.
“What’s wrong with you?” her husband asked when she returned that night.
“I’m just a little worried,” she replied. “First thing in the morning, I’m going to go back.”
Ventura was right to be worried. Late Tuesday night, a patient died at the nursing home. By early Wednesday, rescue crews had responded to several calls from the rehab center about individual patients in distress, prompting law enforcement officials to order an evacuation of the center’s 141 residents, plus an additional four from a neighboring complex.
Public buses and ambulances, sent to transport patients, filled the nursing home’s parking lot by 8 a.m. Wednesday, according to a hospital employee who could not provide his name because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
More than 100 patients were wheeled across the street to Memorial Regional Hospital, which happens to be one of the country’s largest hospitals.
But just a few hours after evacuations began, a total of eight patients were dead.
Ventura was still in her pajamas when she arrived with her family Wednesday morning to find the nursing home’s parking lot roped off. She soon found her mother across the street, sitting in a wheelchair in the hospital’s parking garage.
“They lined them all up in the garage,” Ventura said. “They were giving them water and juice. They were blowing the big fans, so they were OK. Actually, the bottom of [the] garage was cooler than inside [the rehab center].”