Expert: Coolers made it worse in the nursing home, where 12 died

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida. – A Florida nursing home where 12 elderly patients died of overheating after the Hurricane Irma knocked out its air conditioning made matters worse by the use of portable devices that are not well ventilated, and elevated temperatures in most of the facility, an engineer testified in a deposition.

William Crawford, an air-conditioning engineer, said in a deposition released by the state late Thursday that the Rehabilitation Center in the Hills of Hollywood are not enough portable units and the people that they had wound up heating a lot of the facility, because they are not being vented to the outside. The 150-home patient is suing the state to get its license reinstated and Crawford has been hired by the state as an expert witness.

Crawford told the advocate Geoff Smith in a deposition last month that the nine portable air conditioners the home used after September storm were not enough, the production of only about 10 percent of the cooling capacity of the central cooler. The authorities say that the temperatures in the house rose dangerously between Sept. 10, when Irma knock-out of the house the air conditioner, and Sept. 13, when the patients started to die, and the facility was evacuated. Under the state law, nursing homes must maintain a temperature of 81 degrees (27 degrees Celsius) or less.

“The capacity of the spot coolers were insufficient for the cooling of the area of the patient areas,” Crawford said.

Air conditioners work by removing heat from an enclosed space and the outside. Crawford said that the heat from the portable air conditioners on the first floor was ventilated into the ceiling, catch it under the second floor. That meant that most of the first floor, the heat was rising to the second floor, with a number of flows back to the first floor. He said conservative, the temperature in the cavity between the first floor ceiling and the second floor was at least 95 degrees (35 degrees Celsius), but probably reaches between 100 degrees and 110 degrees (38 to 43 degrees Celsius).

He said without proper ventilation, the heat generated by the air conditioners’ operation actually increase the temperature in the building, but he could not say exactly how hot it got.

“I can say with certainty it was over 81” in most of the facility, he said. It is possible, he said, that the temperature was cooler within 9 feet (3 meters) of the five portable units that were on the first floor. “There was no way they maintain 81 degrees on the second floor, where four units were deployed, he said.

Julie Allison, a lawyer for the house, said in a statement Friday, “We will be addressing these matters with the court, and we look forward to sharing all the evidence that has been obtained and that will be considered in a fair and impartial manner by the court.”

Smith wrote in a letter to Congress in November that during the fault, the staff monitored patients and none exhibited any sign of heat exhaustion the first two days.

He said about 3 hours, Sept. 13, a number of patients began showing signs of respiratory and cardiac distress. He said that the staff called ambulance for each patient and followed proper protocols.

“The beginning of a heatstroke, it is impossible to predict and may occur in 10 to 15 minutes,” he said. He said that the elderly are sensitive to 81 degrees (27 degrees Celsius).

The 12 deaths were ruled homicides, but no one has been charged. A criminal investigation is ongoing.

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