7 best practices for weathering a crisis

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Mary Beth Farrell
Mary Beth Farrell

As Hurricane Matthew battered the eastern seaboard this past fall, moving toward North Carolina, resources from Watermark Retirement Communities in Tucson, AZ, and colleagues at The Fountains at The Albemarle in Tarboro, NC, flashed back to the last time disaster struck in 1999.

Nearly 20 years ago, Hurricane Floyd took everyone, including government and weather officials, by surprise with some of the worst flooding in North Carolina's history. It was true then and it proved to be true again: With an effective plan in place, any crisis situation can be navigated.

Both storms forced the evacuation of every resident in independent, assisted, memory care and skilled nursing neighborhoods and resulted in some associates losing their homes. Fortunately, the mandatory evacuation for Hurricane Matthew was precautionary in nature. The community stayed dry, and residents only were displaced for three nights and four days. Even a short-term evacuation, however, comes with extraordinary challenges.

Regardless of the scope or cause of the emergency, senior living communities of all sizes in any location can benefit from being prepared for any potential disaster. The following are some of Watermark's best practices for planning, teamwork and communication in a crisis.

Have a plan in place

The best time to plan for an emergency is well before it happens. When a crisis strikes, it's imperative to have a single, reliable source for information.

Watermark maintains a company-wide policy on, and manual for, emergency preparedness. With best practices, action plans, supply lists, up-to-date state regulations and step-by-step processes, the Watermark emergency preparedness plan is a one-stop source for all the information an executive director needs to successfully manage a crisis.

Cultivate staff longevity

When Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999, Terri Horton was in her sixth year as social services director/associate director, and Lynn Navolio was executive director. Nearly 20 years later, Horton is now executive director, Navolio is managing director and at least a dozen current associates shared the Floyd experience as a team. We even had residents who lived at the community during Hurricane Floyd!

The trust, shared history and cohesiveness proved priceless in the 2016 evacuation process. Although staff longevity can't be created overnight, by recruiting the best candidates, providing ongoing training, opportunities and promotions from within, an experienced team can be cultivated.

Have the home team provide support

In times of crisis, great companies bond like a family.

When the evacuation was ordered, Watermark national and regional resources jumped into cars and hopped on planes all along the east coast. The Watermark calvary included national directors of dining services and risk, a regional director of sales, a director of engineering and an executive director from a nearby community.

Communicate

Good communication is key in any crisis.

Create communication templates in advance. Watermark staffs a toll-free phone line 24/7 in the event phones may go down at any community in crisis.

Build your email database in advance to allow for efficient communication to families and emergency contacts. Take the time to communicate by snail mail before and after the storm to those who had not provided emails, then use the present crisis to bolster the email database for future use.

Watermark resources at the evacuation centers provided a steady stream of updates, which were relayed by phone, email and the web.

Prepare executive directors for potential media inquiries with key message points.

Minimize disruption

A familiar routine provides immense comfort, particularly for residents of a memory care neighborhood.

Community life associates posted daily programming calendars so residents knew what to expect the next day, including exercise programs and excursions plus fun and games.

Throughout the entire experience, Watermark associates kept spirits high and inconvenience to a minimum.

Seek silver linings

Times of crisis always hold silver linings, and Watermark uses them as opportunities to build culture and strengthen shared identity.

Residents of other Watermark communities created gift boxes filled with treats and handwritten notes of encouragement.

Photos were shared on Facebook and in blogs to ensure that evacuated residents felt the love from near and far.

Acknowledge and celebrate success

When everyone was safely back at home, Watermark recognized associates, families, residents, resources, host sites, local authorities and anyone involved with the process. Sharing accolades, such as the following examples received by Watermark's team, goes a long way to boost associate morale during and after trying times:

“We are honored to hear from Red Cross workers at the First Free Will Baptist Church shelter that Watermark's emergency response was the finest they had seen.”

“I just spoke with my mother, who said the Albemarle did a wonderful job of taking care of all the residents. She was very complimentary of all the efforts you made to make their stay as pleasant as possible. Thank you for working so hard to make this happen.”

“Thanks to you and your staff for the care my parents have received at The Fountains and now at the Holiday Inn. I have spoken to them several times since the evacuation, and they are completely taken care of. What a relief to know that they are being cared for like my sister and I would care for them. You and your team are doing a wonderful job!”

“You both were so caring and compassionate with your group of ‘old folks.' I almost didn't want to go home! It was difficult to believe that just a little distance from our shelter there so many others in dire straits. You made me feel so safe and cared for. Plus we had a fun time. Many thanks.”

Any company can follow these best practices and customize them to the needs of their communities. After the storm passes, remember to brainstorm for improvements to the master plan to be ready for whatever comes next.

Mary Beth Farrell, director of risk and chief compliance officer, has been with Watermark Retirement Communities since 2007. Watermark owns and manages 39 retirement communities coast to coast, including The Fountains at The Albemarle in Tarboro, NC.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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