Four Florida nursing home workers face charges in post-hurricane deaths

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) – Police in Florida have issued arrest warrants for four nursing home workers accused of criminal conduct in the death of a dozen elderly patients exposed to sweltering heat with little or no air-conditioning after Hurricane Irma struck in 2017, defense lawyers said on Sunday.

The employees of the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills were expected to surrender to police on Monday morning and make their initial court appearance before a Broward County judge in nearby Fort Lauderdale, the defense attorneys said.

Two of the defendants, the nursing home’s administrator, Jorge Carballo, and the charge nurse on duty at the time, Sergo Collin, are expected to be booked on 12 counts of manslaughter, according to their lead attorney, David Frankel.

The other defendants, both nurses, are expected to face less serious charges, he said. Defense lawyers said their clients are innocent of criminal wrongdoing.

The loss of life at the Hollywood Hills center stirred outrage at the time at what many saw as a preventable tragedy and heightened concerns about the vulnerability of Florida’s large elderly population amid widespread, lingering power outages across the state.

“We believe that when the evidence comes out it will show that the staff at Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was dedicated to their roles as caretakers and did everything they could under the emergency-disaster circumstances after the hurricane,” Frankel said.

He told Reuters that prosecutors have yet to decide how or whether to formally charge the four employees.

Lawrence Hashish, an attorney for one of the nurses, said his client and her colleagues were caring for residents under natural disaster conditions.

“No one could have anticipated the tragedy to come,” Hashish said.

That nurse was working for the facility as a contract employee at the time, her co-counsel, Hilham Soffan, told Reuters.

“The real crime is that the state is looking to blame selfless care givers,” Soffan said.

The Hollywood Police Department declined through a spokesman to comment, saying only that a statement on the case would be issued on Monday.

TWO-YEAR PROBE

The deaths have been the subject of a criminal investigation since they were first reported in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which was blamed for killing more than 80 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland in September of 2017.

City officials said the nursing home continued to operate with little or no air conditioning after the storm knocked out its electricity, and daytime temperatures in the Miami area rose to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).

State authorities said nursing home managers placed eight portable air coolers throughout the building and fans in hallways.

The facility was finally evacuated, under conditions described by workers at the time as chaotic, when four residents were found dead three days after the storm made landfall. Four more died at or en route to a nearby hospital during the evacuation, and four others ultimately succumbed to the effects of heat exposure, bringing the death toll to 12.

The medical examiner ruled the deaths homicides. Frankel said the majority of those who died had been under hospice care or otherwise gravely ill.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration suspended the facility’s license after determining that medical personnel at the home had delayed in calling for emergency assistance when temperatures inside reached excessive levels.

The case is reminiscent of the prosecution of the owners of a New Orleans-area nursing home who were charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of 35 patients who drowned in flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The couple, Salvador and Mabel Mangano, were acquitted by a jury in September 2007.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)

In quake-prone Japan, attention shifts to flood risks as heavy rains increase

FILE PHOTO: The staff of metropolitan outer floodway management office looks around a pressure-adjusting water tank, part of an underground water discharge tunnel which was constructed to protect Tokyo and its suburb areas against floodwaters and overflow of the city's major waterways and rivers during heavy rain and typhoon seasons, at the facility in Kasukabe, north of Tokyo, Japan August 29, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese have long been conditioned to prepare for earthquakes, but recent powerful typhoons and sudden, heavy rains have brought to the forefront another kind of disaster: flooding.

Experts warn that thousands could die and as many as 5 million people would need to be evacuated if massive dikes and levees in low-lying eastern Tokyo are overwhelmed by surging floodwaters.

The cities of Osaka and Nagoya also face flood risks, experts say, amid an increase in sudden heavy rainfall across the country in recent years, a symptom linked to global warming.

“Japan’s major metropolitan areas are, in a way, in a state of national crisis,” said Toshitaka Katada, a professor of disaster engineering at the University of Tokyo.

In July, parts of western Japan were deluged with more than 1,000 millimeters (39 inches) of torrential rain. Gushing water broke levees and landslides destroyed houses, killing more than 200 people in the country’s worst weather disaster in 36 years.

“If this happened to Tokyo, the city would suffer catastrophic damage,” said Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, director of the Japan Riverfront Research Center and author of the book “Capital Submerged,” which urges steps to protect the city, which will host the 2020 Olympics and Rugby World Cup games next year.

Particularly vulnerable are the 1.5 million people who live below sea level in Tokyo, near the Arakawa River, which runs through the eastern part of the city.

In June, the Japan Society of Civil Engineers estimated that massive flooding in the area would kill more than 2,000 people and cause 62 trillion yen ($550 billion) in damage.

Experts could not say how likely that scenario was. But in recent years, the government has bolstered the city’s water defenses by building dams, reservoirs and levees.

But the pace of construction is too slow, said Satoshi Fujii, a special adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who is known for pushing big infrastructure projects.

“They need to be taken care of as soon as possible,” he told Reuters.

John Coates, chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission for the Tokyo 2020 Games, said the city should “take into account the potential for some of these disasters that seem to beset your country.”

In tacit acknowledgement that more needs to be done, the transport ministry late last month asked the finance ministry for 527 billion yen for levee reinforcement and evacuation preparation in next year’s budget. That’s a third more than the current year.

SURROUNDED BY WATER

Tokyo was last hit by major flooding in 1947, when Typhoon Kathleen inundated large swaths of the city and killed more than 1,000 people across Japan.

A survivor from that disaster, 82-year-old Eikyu Nakagawa, recalled living on the roof of his one-story house with his father for three weeks, surrounded by water. He remembered a pregnant woman who had taken refuge in a two-story house next door.

FILE PHOTO: Eikyu Nakagawa talks about flood preparation on a bank along the Nakagawa River near his house during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

FILE PHOTO: Eikyu Nakagawa talks about flood preparation on a bank along the Nakagawa River near his house during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

“The baby could come any minute, but we could not bring a midwife to her or take her to a doctor,” he said. “I was just a kid, but I lost sleep worrying that she might die.”

A similar disaster today would be much worse, Nakagawa predicted, because the area around his house in Tokyo’s eastern Katsushika ward, once surrounded by rice paddies, is now packed with buildings.

“It’s going to be terrible,” he said. “Now it’s so crowded with houses. Little can be done if water comes.”

Intense rainfall is on the upswing across Japan. Downpours of more than 80 millimeters in an hour happened 18 times a year on average over the 10 years through 2017, up from 11 times between 1976-85.

Warming global temperatures contribute to these bouts of extreme weather, scientists say.

“Higher ocean temperatures cause more moisture to get sucked up into the air,” said University of Tokyo’s Katada. “That means a very large amount of rain falling at once, and typhoons are more likely to grow stronger.”

Just last week, western Japan was battered by Typhoon Jebi, the strongest typhoon to make landfall in 25 years, which killed at least 13 people and inundating the region’s biggest international airport.

FILE PHOTO: Residents of Tokyo's Katsushika ward show a floating boat which they keep for a possible flood in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

FILE PHOTO: Residents of Tokyo’s Katsushika ward show a floating boat which they keep for a possible flood in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

EVACUATION NIGHTMARE

In late August, five low-lying wards in Tokyo jointly unveiled hazard maps outlining areas at high risk of flooding, and warned that up to 2.5 million residents may need to evacuate in case of a major disaster.

The maps, which will be available to residents online and via hard copy, show how deep floodwater would likely be for each area, and how long each area would remain underwater.

But such maps were largely ignored during the deadly flooding in western Japan in July.

If a disaster hits during weekday working hours, the number of evacuees could swell to 5 million, including those from neighboring wards, says Tsuchiya – a logistical nightmare. Tokyo prefecture has grown to 14 million people, with millions more in surrounding areas.

Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has called for a new ministry that would focus on disaster prevention and recovery. Currently that is overseen by the Cabinet Office, which handles other disparate tasks such as laying out basic fiscal policy and nurturing technological innovation.

Companies also are waking up to the danger of floods, said Tomohisa Sashida, senior principal consultant at Tokio Marine & Nichido Risk Consulting.

“We have been often approached for quake-related business continuity plans.” he said. “But now they realize they need to keep flood risks in mind and flood-related consultations are certainly on the rise.”

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Kwiyeon Ha; Editing by Malcolm Foster and Gerry Doyle)