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Surviving Florida's Ill Winds

November 1, 2004
by Richard Peck
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The state's quadruple-whammy hurricanes taught lessons, raised concerns, and produced quiet heroes for Florida facilities
    It wasn't a record you'd want to set: the first state since Texas in 1886 to be ravaged by at least three major hurricanes in one season. Florida, as everyone knows, was hit by Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne within the space of five weeks in August and September. (As of this writing, the hurricane season had several weeks to go until the traditional November 30 conclusion.) The personal devastation experienced by Floridians was immense, and many small businesses were put out of business for good. In the middle of it all were long-term care facilities housing some of the state's most vulnerable people. The facilities themselves, confronting not only storm damage but the prospects of a costly cleanup, were in frail condition, as well. How did they get through it? What did they learn? What happens next? Here are observations gleaned from providers and provider organizations by Edward Susman, a local writer on special assignment, and interviews with LTC association officials by Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management Editor-in-Chief Richard L. Peck.

By Edward Susman: "For us, evacuation was never really an option," said Daryl Miller, director of communications for the Joseph L. Morse Geriatric Center, Inc., in West Palm Beach. West Palm Beach, a community of 100,000 people, took staggering hits from the Labor Day Hurricane Frances and the Yom Kippur Hurricane Jeanne, three weeks later in September. "Our facility is rated to withstand a Category Five hurricane," Miller said, "so we are prepared to ride these storms out." She spoke as Jeanne gathered strength in the Atlantic and poised itself to slam into the Palm Beach County−Martin County areas on Florida's east coast.

"During Frances, our plans worked fairly well," Miller said. "We had one of the buildings on our campus suffer some water damage when the roof became compromised, and that forced us to evacuate a few rooms on one floor to another area on the campus. But we had foreseen in our plan the need to do that." In addition to the 280 residents at the Morse Center, during Frances the center also housed the 300 staff members of the center, 150 significant others and spouses of the residents, and 70 children of all ages, from infants to teens.

The one thing that the Morse Center had not collected among its preparatory supplies was a fuse for the generator that was keeping emergency equipment running. Fulfilling Murphy's Law, the fuse failed just at the time the generators were supplying power to Wet/Dry Vacs that were handling the leaks caused by the roof failure. "We had to scramble around to find another fuse, which was kind of unique," Miller explained, "so we were out of service with that generator for about three hours.

"What was amazing was the way everyone pitched in to help," she said. The teenage children of staff and residents took on the task of running meals up and down the stairs as the center served more than 2,000 meals.

"We were good Scouts," Miller said. "We were prepared. We didn't run out of food, we didn't run out of water, and we didn't run out of batteries."

Farther north, and closer to the landfall of Frances and Jeanne, Jennifer Jasper, administrator of the Edgewater Manor retirement center in Hobe Sound, Florida, was less frustrated by the storms than by the response of the local power company, Florida Power & Light Company (FPL). "The lesson I learned from Frances," she said, "is that maybe I have to run for Congress or something in order to get something done about nursing homes' priority status." Nursing homes are not listed among priority customers for restoration of electrical power. Although Edgewater Manor suffered little damage from the storm, it was without power for six days, Jasper said, relying on generators to provide power for some lighting, refrigeration for supplies, and oxygen equipment. "The deli where we got our meals to feed our residents had power. The laundry where we had our linens and clothes washed had power. The state of Florida does not give nursing homes the priority that we need." (Association executives had comments on this, as well; see below.)   "Another lesson I learned from this experience," Jasper said, "was that you have to take time to breathe and relax. You have to be prepared and take everything with a grain of salt. More than that, you need a strong team to get you through these things." Many members of the staff were able to call upon long-time friendships and the "good-ole-boy" network to make sure supplies were obtained. "A lot of people who work here know people who know people," Jasper said, "so when we needed extra generators, somehow they were able to find them. When things break down, it usually is due to a breakdown in communication. When you let people know what your needs are, they usually find a way to solve the problems."

When Hurricane Jeanne finally decided where she wanted to go, the storm roared west across Florida from Martin County, then over nearby Orlando, and then crossed briefly into the Gulf of Mexico north of Tampa. This gave Janie Williams, executive director of Atria Evergreen Woods in Spring Hill, Florida, the dubious experience of trying to cope with four hurricanes in six weeks. During Hurricane Charley, the facility served as the evacuation site for other Atria-owned facilities in hard-hit Pasco County; Hurricane Frances knocked out power to the facility for five days when that storm hit Spring Hill as it crossed the state-the same path Jeanne took later. Before Jeanne, Hurricane Ivan roared up the Gulf of Mexico, dousing the area with rains and tropical storm-force winds.