HOLLYWOOD (CBSMiami) – Heading into Hurricane Irma, Natasha Anderson felt confident the Hollywood Hills nursing home, as well as the neighboring psychiatric hospital she ran, were in good shape to handle the pending storm.
“You can be as prepared as possible but until the real deal happens you just never know what to expect,” said Anderson, CEO of the Larkin Behavioral Health Services Center.
Both the behavioral center and the nursing home are in the same building and are both owned by Dr. Jack Michel.
“You know it was very scary because for me I had never experienced a storm of this magnitude,” Anderson told CBS4 News in her first television interview.
After the storm hit, the AC system lost power. More than a dozen residents from The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died in the days and weeks that followed. Anderson has emerged as a central character in understanding what took place. As CBS4 News first reported in September, Anderson placed three calls to Governor Rick Scott’s personal cell phone. The first call was made 36 hours before anyone died at the nursing home.
Anderson explained she called Scott because in the days leading up to the storm, Scott held daily conference calls with hospital and nursing home officials from around the state.
“And during those calls Governor Scott informed administrators and nursing home officials if at any time a facility needed help or needed to get assistance on the back end because you thought your facility was not getting their needs met to please call the numbers that he provided and they will make sure help was received,” Anderson said.
The Governor, she added, made it clear he was providing his personal cell phone to them.
“I actually was very impressed,” she recalled. “I remember getting off the phone and saying, I’m really impressed. We’re really well prepared. Our Governor is involved. I feel confident that we are going to be okay. As healthcare administrator I felt really confident if anything goes wrong I can call these numbers and surely we are going to be okay, we’re going to get our needs met.”
Then Hurricane Irma hit.
“The AC went out approximately 3 o’clock on Sunday,” she said. “I was not even aware it went out until about 3:45 when the director of engineering walked over to our side of the building to inform us that the AC did go out. He informed us that the AC transformer that is located on an FPL pole right outside the building was blown out of place.”
She said the staff from the nursing home immediately began calling FPL for help.
“I have seen some of the phone logs and I can tell you over 20-30 calls were made to FPL between Sunday and Tuesday evening,” she said.
By early Monday evening, about 25 hours after their AC lost power, and with FPL still not responding, Anderson called Governor Scott’s cell phone. The call went to voicemail and several hours later someone called her back.
“My expectation was that we would get a better response,” she said. “I know and I do not question how hard the governor and his team worked for the State of Florida. It was very difficult for everyone. We were all going through a crisis with Hurricane Irma. I just believed and I expected for a different response.”
She made two more calls to the Governor’s cell phone and another executive made an additional call to Scott – but again nothing came from them. By early Wednesday morning the situation deteriorated rapidly.
Scott’s press secretary Lauren Schenone, responded: “Every healthcare professional knows to call 911 if their patients’ lives are in danger – not an elected official. We need to know why this facility didn’t call 911 or evacuate their patients.”
Anderson became emotional when asked about the perception by many in the community that the employees who were working at the nursing home didn’t care about the residents inside.
“You know,” she said, pausing to wipe away tears. “This was tragic for all of us. And to go through this and live this was one of the most difficult things that all of us experienced. Just even being in the building. I brought my family here. My team brought their family here. If I didn’t care I would have been at home. And I would have been in the comfort of my home. That was not the case. We were here. And we were making rounds, we did not stop. We did everything in our power that we believed we could do and within our means to care for our clients and to make sure that their safety was a priority. And to think that that’s questioned is just very difficult for me.”
Anderson said she realizes the families of those that died are angry.
“They are family members, they want answers, I get it,” she said. “I have family members of my own that I am very protective of and I would do anything for, so I get it and I believe they will get their answers.”
The Hollywood Police Department is investigating the deaths. The Governor has called on the Legislature to require nursing homes have back-up generators in place. There are also laws being proposed to require FPL to make nursing homes a priority in the event of a power outage.
After the last of the residents were evacuated from both the nursing home and the behavioral hospital, and she made sure her staff was alright, Anderson said she packed up and left.
“I got in the car and I cried, I was very emotional I did not know what I was feeling” she said. “There was too much for me to even put into words from the fear to the unknown to just the chaos of the day trying to be the strong person for my facility and my employees and my clients.”
Making matters worse, after the nursing home was evacuated, FPL finally showed up.
“One person they were able to get on the pole and was able to replace the transformer that was blown out of place,” she said. “And immediately the air kicked in. Immediately.”
It took less than 25 minutes to fix.
“The most disheartening feeling I have felt ever to know that something of this magnitude took only 25 minutes to resolve,” she said. “It could have happened on Sunday when we made a first attempt to have FPL come out here.”
(In Part 2 of the investigation, two nursing home employees share how the patient deaths haunt them personally and professionally.)