Authorities seek answers after Florida nursing home deaths

(CNN) -- For three days, the staff at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills scrambled to keep residents hydrated and cool when a tree fell down onto a transformer that powered the air conditioning system.

Eight of the nursing home's residents died by Wednesday.

The facility in Hollywood, Florida, says it was prepped for Hurricane Irma. The power generator was working, and the staff stocked up on seven days' worth of food and water. But they didn't anticipate they would still have to fight the intense heat with fans and portable air conditioner units.

"They were trying to get them all together so they could be able to breathe," said Ellie Pina, who visited her mother at the facility days before emergency crews evacuated residents on Wednesday.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered an emergency moratorium on Wednesday to prevent the facility from admitting new patients and three agencies have launched investigations into how this happened as many questions remain unanswered.

"I am going to aggressively demand answers on how this tragic event took place," he said in a statement. "If they find that this facility was not meeting the state's high standards of care, they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

'I'm not quite clear on how this happened'

Jeffrey Nova had been calling the nursing home where his mom lived, but he couldn't get anyone to answer the phone since Sunday.

Still, that didn't strike him as unusual, he said -- communicating with the staff had always been like "pulling teeth."

It didn't dawn on him that something could be terribly wrong.

On Wednesday, he learned that his mother, Gail Nova, was one of eight residents who died at the facility.

"I'm not quite clear on how this happened," said Nova, who said he learned of his mother's death from a reporter who got his name and contact info from a nursing home employee.

Without air conditioning, residents were kept in hallways near the cooling units as the days passed.

It was until Wednesday at about 3 a.m. when the first 911 call was made for a patient in cardiac arrest. About an hour later, crews grew concerned when they received a second call for a resident with breathing problems. When the third call came in, the fire department sent over more crews, the City of Hollywood said in a statement.

But by the time the facility was completely evacuated on Wednesday morning, one resident had been taken to a funeral home, three others were found dead on the second floor of the facility and several others were in distress, officials said.

Four more died in hospitals after paramedics and emergency medical staff helped evacuate the sweltering facility.

The causes of death are yet to be determined.

"We are devastated by these losses," Nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said in a statement. "We are fully cooperating with all authorities and regulators to assess what went wrong and to ensure our other residents are cared for."

Questions arise

The deaths have prompted authorities to question how the conditions at the nursing home lasted for so long.

Carballo said the center immediately contacted Florida Power & Light and continued to follow up with them for status updates on when repairs would be made. City and state officials said they were in contact with the nursing home over the past three days and advised them to call 911 if they believed that the health or safety of patients was at risk.

"When asked if they had any medical needs or emergencies, did not request assistance or indicate any medical emergency existed," Hollywood Hills Mayor Barbara Sharief said in a statement.

It's unclear when the facility first reached out to first responders.

In a statement, Richard Beltran, a spokesman for Florida Power & Light, said: "What we know now is that a portion of the facility did, in fact, have power, that there was a hospital across the parking lot from this facility and that the nursing home was required to have a permanently installed operational generator."

The nursing home has a history of safety violations and citations, including two for not following generator regulations in 2014 and 2016. In both instances, the nursing home corrected these deficiencies.

As power outages persist in Florida, the Hollywood facility is not the only one that has been affected by the storm.

The Florida Health Care Association, which represents 81% of Florida's nursing centers -- but not the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills -- said about 150 facilities out of nearly 700 nursing facilities in the state do not have full power services restored. The association has said it is working with the state to identify homes without power in greatest need so utility companies can prioritize them.

More evacuations

The deaths prompted checks of other nursing homes in the area.

Police checked 42 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the city of Hollywood and, hours later, 79 residents from the Krystal Bay Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Miami Beach were evacuated to another facility because of the heat.

These South Florida facilities are among hundreds of nursing centers in the state. The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses and regulates such facilities, says there are 683 nursing homes in the state with more than 84,000 beds. In addition, there are more than 3,100 assisted living facilities with more than 99,000 beds.