As Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida, Gov. Rick Scott gave out his cellphone number during a conference call with administrators of the state's nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
He told them to contact him if they ran into problems, and he would try to get help.
So, they did, 120 times according to phone records released this week. Nearly all the calls went directly to voicemail before being returned.
The Associated Press reached 29 of the callers this week, and found that in numerous cases, the governor's offer to personally intervene may have slowed efforts to get help, and fostered unrealistic and potentially dangerous expectations that Scott could resolve problems that were beyond his control. Only one said the governor answered himself — and she got the help she needed.
Irma knocked out power across much of Florida as its strongest winds swept from Key West to Jacksonville on Sept. 10 and 11, and most of the calls asked for help restoring electricity. But Florida is served by private electric companies and municipal utilities — none directed by the state. The governor's office could only request that particular nursing homes be given priority.
Twelve patients later died of overheating at a nursing home that called Scott's cellphone three times. Its administrators say Scott's staff didn't get them help restoring their air conditioning. Scott, a former hospital executive, says their negligence caused the deaths.
“Even with the best of intentions, when you give a single number, you automatically create a potential bottleneck, and it's almost a guaranteed bottleneck if it's the governor's number,” says Richard Olson, executive director of Florida International University's Extreme Events Institute. He recommends creating a state hotline for nursing homes during extreme weather, with operators filtering calls for severity and urgency.
The records show that most of the calls Scott got from nursing homes and assisted living facilities were received on the day before the storm and during the three days thereafter. Several times daily an aide would listen to the recordings, note names, numbers and problems, and email the information to other aides, who would get them contacted. The voicemails were then erased.
Scott's office released his aides' emails about the calls late Monday under a public records request made by former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor this year. Scott, a Republican, is barred from a third term but is contemplating a campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
The AP tried to contact all 120 callers. About a third interviewed said they were satisfied with the help they got from Scott's office, a third were unsatisfied and the rest were neutral.
The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, where the 12 elderly patients died after Irma knocked out power to its central air conditioner on Sept. 10, called Scott's cellphone once on Sept. 11 and twice on Sept. 12, the records show. The 150-bed facility was evacuated early Sept. 13, right after the first three deaths. The remaining patients were taken to a major hospital across the street, which never lost power.
“The administrators at Hollywood Hills took the Governor at his word, and felt assured that he would take decisive action to be sure that power was promptly restored for the AC when this was reported,” Geoffrey D. Smith, the home's attorney, wrote in an email to the AP. “It is difficult to know in hindsight what may have occurred differently if the Governor had advised that he would not take any action. But the facility administrators would not have been instilled with the false hope that help was on the way.”
Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone says each Hollywood Hills call was returned and administrators said they had enough portable fans and coolers.
City recordings show that home employees called 911 six times between 3 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Sept. 13 to report dying or seriously ill patients, but in none of the calls did they indicate a major crisis was developing. Hollywood police are investigating the deaths as homicides.
“No amount of finger pointing ... will hide the fact that this health care facility failed to do their basic duty to protect life,” Schenone wrote in an email. “This facility is failing to take responsibility for the fact that they delayed calling 911 and made the decision to not evacuate their patients to one of the largest hospitals in Florida.”
The callers who were complimentary of Scott told the AP that his aides helped them quickly resolve problems by getting them help they couldn't easily obtain by themselves in the post-Irma chaos.
Jacqueline Trost, a spokeswoman for American House Senior Living Communities, said the firm's chief executive officer contacted Scott because power was out to a pump that runs the sewage system at one of the company's six Florida facilities. The state delivered a generator. Trost called that “fantastic.”
“We would have been in a situation with backed-up toilets. We were dealing with seniors who are frail and some of them can't move,” Trost said.
Diana Bailey, a vice president at Naples' Chateau at Moorings Park nursing home, said she was “amazed” when Scott answered her call. She said she was seeking additional generator gas and it arrived soon after she spoke to Scott, although she had also spoken to federal officials and isn't sure who got it delivered.
Those critical of Scott said the governor shouldn't have implied that he could provide help he couldn't deliver. Some may have had unrealistic expectations, such as the administrator who called the day before Irma hit seeking scarce plywood to protect his nursing home's windows.
Luan Morrow, executive director of the 85-bed Cottages of Bradenton, says she and her staff prepared for hurricanes, buying four portable generators to power the assisted living facility's lights, oxygen system, fans and kitchen. But two days after Irma, there was still no outside power, leaving the sewage pump disabled and backing up the toilets. She called Scott's cellphone, but no assistance arrived.
“The governor promised help. We never saw any help,” Morrow said, saying she believes Scott was grandstanding to boost his likely Senate campaign.