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Report: Hundreds Of Florida Nursing Homes Fall Short Of Post-Irma Regulations

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now staying here in Florida, residents may be spared a direct hit from Dorian, but forecasters say dangerous storm surges, hurricane-force winds and power outages are still expected. For Floridians, the memory of Hurricane Irma two years ago is still fresh, in part because at least 84 people in the state died as a result of the storm. Twelve of those deaths occurred at a nursing home in Hollywood, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale after the storm knocked out power to the facility's air conditioning system. On Tuesday, four employees of the center were charged with aggravated manslaughter in connection with those deaths.

That tragedy raises the question of whether the state is better prepared today, especially in caring for vulnerable residents. A Miami Herald report found that hundreds of nursing homes do not meet new requirements put in place since Hurricane Irma. Miami Herald reporter Elizabeth Koh is with us now from Tallahassee to tell us more.

Elizabeth, thanks so much for joining us.

ELIZABETH KOH: Thanks for inviting me.

MARTIN: So, Elizabeth, has the state taken steps since Hurricane Irma to ensure that facilities like nursing homes can continue to care for residents in the event of a major hurricane? Are they ready?

KOH: The biggest thing that the state did after Irma was to pass regulations last year shortly after the storm hit to say that nursing homes and assisted living facilities needed backup power, specifically for their air conditioning, which is where the Hollywood Hills nursing facility failed. The regulations call for additional fuel storage in addition to powerful generators that can keep those temperature facilities running. And that was supposed to go into implementation at the beginning of last year's hurricane season.

MARTIN: Last year's hurricane season - so did it? I mean, are these facilities ready?

KOH: Hundreds of facilities needed more time. They cited delays with local governments that required additional permits, backlogs and contractors, difficulty getting the equipment installed. When we're talking about large nursing home facilities, we're talking about some pretty powerful, substantial generators that need concrete pads to sit on, things like that. So the state gave them an extension until the end of the year.

MARTIN: So do you have a sense of whether the staff at these facilities and the families of the residents - do they feel prepared for the storm?

KOH: That's something that the state is trying to check. Unfortunately, as we learned in Irma, that's something that can be difficult to determine with full certainty. The Hollywood Hills nursing facility, as we discussed, is a facility that had a generator on the premises. It just didn't power their air conditioning. It had an emergency plan, like a lot of nursing home facilities have now. But that was a plan that wasn't very thoroughly vetted by county officials.

So the question of how safe nursing home facilities actually are - that's something that we're seeing local officials do site checks and calls to see if they can establish generator statuses at various facilities and ensure the safety of residents. But if you are concerned about a family member who is at a facility, it's worth calling and checking and asking how they're preparing for this storm.

MARTIN: Are there any other lessons that the states learned from the tragedy that occurred in Hollywood Hills? Is there any - are there any other steps that they're taking to give the public confidence that something like this won't happen again?

KOH: They've put out a new website - it's fl-generator.com - that gives the public an opportunity to look at what kind of generator status is on file with the state - whether they have a permanently installed generator, whether it's a temporary generator on site, off site. So that's a resource for the public.

The state has also promised that they will do spot checks after the storm to make sure that facilities that have gotten generators have those generators up and running. We've been told that the state has stockpiled additional generators in case some of those generators fail so that they have backups. And we're told that the Department of Health is also helping with that, too - the State Department of Health.

MARTIN: That was Miami Herald reporter Elizabeth Koh joining us from WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla.

Elizabeth, thanks so much for joining us, and thanks for your reporting.

KOH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.