Weeks After Hurricane Irma, Fla. Still Counting Fatalities
Oct. 07—They are the final victims of Hurricane Irma: 66 people whose deaths across Florida are officially tied to the storm's high winds, flooding rains and lasting effects on roads, emergency services and power grids.
Yet a recent official tally from Florida's Department of Emergency Management does not include a dozen elderly residents who died in a sweltering Broward County nursing home. Other deaths that seem storm-related are not attributed to Irma, while some on the state list appear to have little connection.
Medical examiners' offices statewide handle all death investigations, and only they can officially attribute any deaths to the storm that ran up the peninsula last month, said Florida Division of Emergency Management spokesman Alberto Moscoso.
"That information is reported to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, then subsequently, in the case of storm-related deaths, to the State Emergency Response Team," he said, adding the deaths are tallied for historic purposes and storm analysis.
Those causes of death are as varied as heat exhaustion and diabetic issues. About 20 are attributed to a blunt-force injury or some kind of impact, including people killed in traffic crashes or crushed by a fallen tree or collapsed structure. Eight people died from drowning, and 13 died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused in some cases by running generators indoors.
The highest number of deaths listed are in Broward County but don't include the 12 victims, ages 57 to 99, who died after the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills lost its air conditioning for three days post-Irma. As of the Wednesday tally -- the numbers are revised weekly -- only one of Broward's deaths is even heat-related.
The reason why those dozen people are not listed is due to the time it takes to complete their autopsies, said Craig T. Mallak, chief medical examiner in Broward County.
"They aren't included because the ancillary testing such as toxicology is not complete," he said last week. "Once that is done, each case will be reviewed, and based on all the information we have at the time, a decision will be made whether we think they are due to the hurricane."
In Duval County, the deaths of five people are listed by the state as Irma-related. They are Carl Tevorah, Martin Woods Sr., Susan Tonn, Gordon Frazier and Donald McAuliff, according to the state report and the District IV medical examiner in Jacksonville. The state report says two of the deaths were cardiac-related, two more were drowning and one resulted from heart disease. But it doesn't pair the names with the causes of death.
Brief obituaries have been posted on three of those victims. They say Woods, 59, passed away Sept. 13, the same day as Tonn, listed as 53 in her obituary. Frazier's notice said the 54-year-old Fernandina Beach man died Sept. 14. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office's "undetermined death" report on McAuliff says the 64-year-old Palatka man died Sept. 15 -- four days after the storm -- as he worked on a hurricane-damaged fence at his girlfriend's Argyle Forest home.
"She stated he never said he felt bad," the report said. "While he was working on the fence, he fell and collapsed."
Taken to Orange Park Medical Center, he was pronounced dead, the report said, adding he had coronary artery disease and hypertension. But his death only occurred because of Hurricane Irma, so he was added to the list, Chief Medical Examiner Valerie Rao said.
"Anything related to or with the hurricane will be counted as a death," she said. "That is a direct tie-in with the storm because he would not be repairing the fence if it had not fallen, and it would not have fallen if not for the storm. ... It could even be a month from now that a tile from a roof fell on someone's head and someone was injured and after a month they die. We would tie that into the hurricane category because the tile would not have fallen off if not for the hurricane."
A second police report may be about Woods, as it details the Sept. 13 discovery of a body near the Walmart at 6830 Normandy Blvd. Firefighters called to the scene in the woods just west of the store confirmed the death at 12:30 a.m. The report does not identify the dead man.
The medical examiner has completed autopsies on Frazier, Tonn and Tevorah, with the results of the other two pending. But two of the completed reports don't appear to connect the deaths to impacts of the hurricane or its aftermath.
Frazier's nine-page report states his cause of death as coronary artery atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, plus myocardial fibrosis, or thickening of the heart valves. It says he died of natural causes, but the autopsy did find some abrasions on his back, arms and legs and signs of "remote traumatic brain injuries."
Tevorah's report listed no signs of injury. His cause of death was heart disease and the manner termed natural.
Only Tonn's report officially ties her death to the storm, stating the cause of death as drowning, an accident since she "drowned in flood during/after Hurricane Irma."
The Jacksonville-based District 4 Medical Examiner's Office also handles Clay and Nassau counties, but the state report of Irma-related deaths doesn't include any deaths from there, although law enforcement authorities reported one during the hurricane.
Gary Stephen Ulrich was discovered dead about 6 a.m. Sept. 11 by a school resource officer at the Nassau County evacuation center at Callahan Middle School, according to the Sheriff's Office. Diagnosed with leukemia and suffering from health issues, the 63-year-old man apparently died overnight as Irma was hitting Northeast Florida hard, according to the incident report. Ulrich was from Hudson, northwest of Tampa.
Nassau County Emergency Management Director Billy Estep said he doesn't know why the man was so far from home in their shelter. While he died at the height of the hurricane in a shelter, Rao said, she didn't include him in the list of storm-related deaths.
"He was not doing anything hurricane-related," she said. "He basically died a natural death."
Another death appears Irma-related, according to a St. Johns County Sheriff's Office report, but not according to that county's medical examiner.
Barbara Lee LaFountain, 75, of Ponte Vedra Beach died between 4 and 6:30 a.m. Sept. 11 at the height of the storm's impact, according to the Sheriff's Office report on her death. She died when St. Johns Fire Rescue units were blocked from getting to her South Roscoe Boulevard home due to bad weather and a fallen tree blocking the route.
The Sheriff's Office said a deputy found the road blocked at 6:30 a.m. and saw a fire engine on the other side. The fire lieutenant on board said they had been trying to get to LaFountain's home for a while after multiple calls from there about a woman with a medical problem, according to the report.
The deputy took the lieutenant to the home, where they found the victim dead in her bedroom and a neighbor saying she had been calling 911 since 4:15 a.m., the report said. The report said the woman and her husband were using towels to stop flooding when she felt faint. The woman passed out, then complained of severe stomach and back pain.
The Sheriff's Office investigation showed the storm was so bad that no help could get to the home for three hours, and fire vehicles trying to get there after the first 911 call stopped because "water was too high." The fire department requested a county vehicle that could get through high water at 5:15 a.m. following another 911 call, but it was blocked by fallen trees. LaFountain was pronounced dead at 7:27 a.m.
While the Sheriff's Office investigation points to many of the hurricane's effects, the autopsy doesn't.
"The St. Johns County case was a natural cause of death," said Koni Rogers, administrative coordinator for the St. Johns County Medical Examiner's Office. "There was no direct hurricane involvement. The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office did not consult with the medical examiner before releasing the statement."
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville