Rick Kamminga

In early September, Hurricane Irma passed through Florida, causing devastation and destruction throughout the state. In the path of the storm were three of Watermark Retirement Communities’ 51 communities: The Fountains at Lake Pointe Woods in Sarasota, The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay in St. Petersburg and The Watermark at Trinity in Trinity.

Ultimately, our St. Petersburg community was the only community required to evacuate because of its location on Boca Ciega Bay. Two days before Irma hit, residents of our assisted living and memory care neighborhoods were relocated to The Watermark at Trinity, and residents in the independent living neighborhood evacuated to a resort hotel two hours from the community.

Weathering Irma was nothing short of monumental, but I’m happy to say that with advance planning and masterful execution, our team was able to care for our residents and create an environment where they thrived, even in the midst of a crisis. Looking back, several best practices can be gained from this experience.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Our Florida communities were adequately prepared to tackle Irma head on and had the resources in place to protect the community and residents. Custom disaster preparedness plans and checklists outlined the steps to take in every circumstance, at every point along the timeline of the storm.

Details ranged from unplugging computers and appliances to arranging for off-site pharmacy coordination, generators, satellite phones and everything in between. The key to these plans was preparing for every possible scenario. In the case of a hurricane, this includes power outages, flooding, damage to the community, evacuation and return home. As the old adage goes, if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. And failing is not an option when it comes to caring for residents.

Of course, even with all that preparation, many on-the-spot decisions needed to be made and actions to be taken. During these times, we rely on seasoned leaders and well-trained associates to make sound decisions and pull together as a team.

2. Make the best of the situation.

Hurricanes can be terrifying and stressful situations, but that doesn’t mean that residents have to worry. During Irma, communities came together and connected. They played games, exercised and forged new friendships. The local teams did an expert job at keeping spirits high and making the most of an otherwise rough situation.

Residents at The Fountains at Lake Pointe Woods, for instance, were set up with cots in the corridors to stay away from windows, for safety. They treated the experience like a block party, with everyone dining, chatting and connecting in the hallways just like a neighborhood party from the past. The dining services director even walked the hallways singing Italian serenades to residents as the worst of the storm passed over the community. His lighthearted approach kept everyone calm and made the worst hours of Hurricane Irma more about togetherness than a fearsome storm.

3. Communicate with your team and families.

In times of stress and the unknown, communication is a lifeline. During Irma, our team hosted a daily conference call to connect with our executive directors and ask how we could support them. This was key to making sure that they had the necessary resources in place and provided a support system between the three communities.

We also communicated regularly with our residents’ family members and other loved ones. We set up a toll-free number that was staffed by our team and sent twice-daily emails with updates. Ongoing updates and photos also were posted on Facebook and each community’s dedicated Irma webpage. These regular communications proved to be incredibly helpful at keeping families in the loop.

For Watermark Retirement Communities, Irma was not without its silver linings. Communities from coast to coast made banners and shared photos of residents holding signs for our Florida communities, sending love and positive thoughts to sister communities in the Sunshine State. But the real heroes of the story are our associates, who spent countless hours with residents meeting their needs, calming their fears and making them smile while their own homes also were in the path of the storm.

Thankfully, Irma left only minor damage to our communities. Our teams faced power outages, water damage and downed trees, but the outcome could have been much worse. Our thoughts and prayers are with the individuals and families who were more seriously affected by the storm.

Although planning for a disaster takes time, effort and energy, it is absolutely critical to the success of your community and the comfort, confidence and well-being of residents, associates and families.

Rick Kamminga is managing director for Watermark Retirement Communities, the 16th-largest senior housing provider in the United States.

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