Hurricane Irma exposes the fault lines in our communities with deadly results

Eight elderly and helpless people who couldn’t speak for themselves, who couldn’t reach out for help in a Hollywood nursing home, are dead in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

Without electricity for days and suffering through extreme heat, they died in a horrific way that cannot — and should not — be understated.

This is wholesale negligence on many counts, if not homicide, given the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills’ troubled record with the state. A criminal investigation is being conducted, but it’s not enough.

Hurricane Irma is exposing the fault lines in our communities — and we’ve got a lot of questions to ask, a lot of work and soul-searching to do.

How can this happen on our watch in this wealthy, modern country?

How can this happen in Florida, a retirement state where elderly affairs should be a top priority?

How can this happen in South Florida, a region that should have state-of-the-art hurricane preparations and plans in place as a matter of course?

How can this happen when Florida Power & Light — which has a near-monopoly on electric power in the region — is supposed to give nursing homes a high priority in getting electricity back after loss to a storm?

This was not the only nursing home left without power for too many days.

Nursing Home deaths 04 EKM

Six residents at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died Wednesday morning after they fell ill in a building that had been left without air conditioning after Irma blasted South Florida, according to authorities.

Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

“There were people with power back already in the neighborhood around us, but we just got power this morning,” an administrator of a southwest Broward rehabilitation and nursing home facility told me Wednesday. “They did not give us the priority they promised.”

The nursing home survived on a generator that only powered up to the second floor, leaving the third totally without electricity. The elderly there had to be jam-packed into the second floor with others.

This is what the people we don’t see — the most vulnerable among us — are going through. We saw the quintessential images of hurricane supply sell-outs over and over again on television: People middle-class and up were able to make costly preparations and amply stock their homes for days and weeks.

But the poor, the working poor and the elderly and incapacitated in full-time care were left without help or at the mercy of others, their fates hanging on the level of competence and care from government services and their contractors. Out of Miami-Dade County’s 3 million population, about 530,320 live below the poverty line. That’s no small number.

As a community, we failed them.

During evacuations, a shuttle to shelters didn’t take into account that poor people don’t have cars or rides to get them to the shuttle pick-up point. Evacuees are supposed to bring along with them supplies. How can someone walk for miles carrying water, food, blankets?

Likewise, public housing residents — many elderly — were left stranded for long hours in Allapattah without transportation after they returned from shelters to find their Civic Towers Section 8 housing closed, possibly unsafe, and in need of city inspection for hurricane damage.

Both incidents illustrate a lack of awareness and common sense. If there was anyone in charge with any of those attributes, they certainly didn’t put them to work.

Long before a hurricane hits, we have to mobilize resources, public and private, in time to help the poor buy food and supplies to protect themselves. That there’s no coordinated effort to do this only speaks to this community’s blind eye to the poor and disadvantaged. And the state certainly needs to be more vigilant of the elderly in long-term care and inspect hurricane plans. And FPL needs to focus less on public relations and more on real action. Who among us wouldn’t happily give away a turn at quick restoration of power to a nursing home? Please, that’s elementary.

If we didn’t get it together when we had a Category 5 barreling towards us, then when?

Without a system in place guaranteed to help those who need it, we’re left with what we have today: Reacting to a horrific, deadly scene with multiple human casualties — and a lot of blame to go around.