After Hurricane Irma knocked out power to the air conditioning at a Hollywood nursing home in September, more than a dozen residents died after temperatures rose and rescuers evacuated scores more from sweltering rooms and hallways.
On Wednesday, two men said their 86-year-old aunt should be counted as a new casualty of the conditions at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Broward County that accuses the center of negligence in preparing for and responding to Hurricane Irma, resulting in her death.
Melek Said Elezaby, who died Oct. 5, is the 15th resident of the nursing home known to have died after the storm, said lawyer Albert Levin, who helped file the suit Wednesday. The Hollywood Police Department has identified 13 residents whose deaths are part of a criminal investigation into the center, and named a 14th whose death was later determined by the Broward medical examiner as not linked to the investigation.
Ahmed and Hussein Ezzat, the nephews, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Levin, who filed the suit with fellow attorney Curtis Miner on their behalf, said the circumstances of her death point the blame squarely at the nursing home.
“She was in good health up until the time the power went out at the facility,” Levin said. After the storm, “she then went into distress. Her body temperature spiked considerably.”
Elezaby first entered the rehab center at 1200 N. 35th Ave. in August 2014, shortly after she was diagnosed with dementia, Levin said. Though her mental faculties declined, her physical health remained stable for three years.
As Irma approached, the rehab center told Ahmed Ezzat that his aunt would remain there and that “she would be safe and cared for,” according to the lawsuit. But when the storm swept through South Florida on Sept. 10, the facility’s conditions and Elezaby’s own deteriorated rapidly.
Without a backup generator for the center’s air conditioning, staff members brought in fans and spot coolers to try to tamp down the tropical heat. Nursing home administrators later said they repeatedly contacted Florida Power & Light and state regulators to repair the downed transformer.
But they did not call 911 for days. Inside the 152-bed center, the temperature kept climbing.
It wasn’t until early morning on Sept. 13, three days after the storm, that staffers dialed the emergency number as resident after resident began to suffer cardiac or respiratory distress. Scores of residents would eventually be evacuated from the center, including Elezaby, who according to the lawsuit struggled to breathe and had an irregular heartbeat.
Her condition continued to decline after she was evacuated to Memorial Regional Hospital across the street, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia, according to the lawsuit. About a week after she was evacuated, she was moved to Kindred Hospital. She died in the hospital on Oct. 5, the lawsuit said.
The medical examiner’s office has not yet released a cause of death, Levin said.
Authorities have sought to understand in the weeks after Irma how the situation there collapsed so rapidly. The state Agency for Health Care Administration suspended the nursing home’s government reimbursements and then shut it down. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also conducting a criminal investigation.
Police have not linked Elezaby’s death to its investigation of the nursing home, though Levin said police were aware of her case. “I’m rather surprised it hasn't been listed by police as someone that died as a result of the events that transpired,” he said.
Hollywood police spokesman Christian Lata said Elezaby’s death was a matter of civil litigation and directed questions on the investigation to the city. Hollywood spokeswoman Raelin Storey said that as of Wednesday afternoon, 13 residents’ deaths had been listed as linked to the police department’s investigation.
Elezaby’s family is not the first to seek answers through a wrongful death suit. Levin filed a suit in September on behalf of the family of Miguel and Cecilia Franco, a husband and wife who were residents of the nursing home when the hurricane hit.
Miguel, 93, was among the eight rehab center residents who initially died on Sept. 13 after the air conditioning failed. Cecilia, 90, survived the home’s evacuation but died weeks later on Oct. 9.
The Francos’ deaths are part of the criminal investigation being conducted by the Hollywood Police Department into the circumstances at the center after the storm. The deaths of 11 other residents — Albertina Vega, 99; Carolyn Eatherly, 78; Manuel Mario Mendieta, 96; Gail Nova, 70; Bobby Owens, 84; Estella Hendricks, 71; Betty Hibbard, 84; Martha Murray, 94; Carlos Canal, 93; Alice Thomas, 94 and Dolores Biamonte, 57 — have also been linked to the air conditioning failure at the center.
A 14th resident, Francisca Antonia Castro Andrande, 95, was also initially linked to the sweltering conditions at the center, though the Broward medical examiner’s office later told the Sun Sentinel her death was “determined not [to] be a medical examiner case.”