CCRC springs into action after Hurricane Hermine

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Don Wilson
Don Wilson

Advance planning and dedicated staff members and residents helped Westminster Oaks continuing care retirement / life plan community in Tallahassee, FL, get through some trying days and nights after Hurricane Hermine came through earlier this month, Executive Director Don Wilson told McKnight's Senior Living.

“We had been watching the storm turning into a tropical storm and then into a Category 1 hurricane for several days, so I already had our department heads preparing for the situation,” he said. Given Florida's weather, those at the community had detailed checklists to follow as the storm progressed through its various stages, Wilson added. Some department heads and staff members even spent the night Sept. 1, when the hurricane was expected to hit landfall.

“It came on land about 11 p.m., and we lost power at about 11:20 p.m.,” Wilson said. The CCRC would be without electricity for three days — until the evening of Sept. 4 — although backup generators supplied limited power to the assisted living and skilled nursing parts of the complex.

“But no air conditioning,” he said. “It would take huge generators to run the air conditioning for the size space we have. So we opened windows and turned on fans and kept pushing the ice and the water for hydration.” Fortunately, Wilson added, relatively reasonable temperatures and humidity (for the Sunshine State) made the conditions more bearable than they would have been otherwise.

Special provisions

Residents slept through the worst of the storm, Wilson said, “but Friday morning, it didn't look real good around the campus.”

Unlike some other areas of the capital city, Westminster Oaks didn't sustain major damage to its buildings, but downed trees at the community and elsewhere presented challenges, he said.

“There were trees on the roads for all entries to Westminster Oaks, so the staff could not get in or out on Friday morning,” Wilson said. “But yet the staff who were supposed to come in showed up on the other side of the trees. We drove cars and trucks and golf carts out to the trees on the roads, and the staff would walk around or climb over the trees, and then we'd bring them to work.” The drive was about one-fourth of a mile, he added.

Vehicles solved one problem with the fallen trees but could not solve another: workers coming off their shifts were unable to leave the community. Westminster Oaks set up beds and mattresses in private areas so they could sleep, Wilson said.

The community also set up a daycare center, staffed by employees who volunteered, for workers who could come to work but had nobody to watch children who were home from school.

Water and natural gas availability was not an issue, Wilson said.

The kitchen staff made three meals a day for assisted living and health center residents and one meal a day for independent residents on the meal program as well as meals for employees. Employees ate in the assisted living and health center dining rooms after residents had finished their meals, he added.

“The staff in the kitchen did a wonderful job under very hot conditions,” Wilson said. “It was probably 90-some degrees, easily, in the kitchen.”

State law requires Westminster Oaks to have a seven-day emergency supply of food for assisted living and health center residents, he said. “But because we're a large campus, we also had freezers and refrigerators full of food,” he added. “So we were never short of food.”

Neighborhood block captains

In addition to lauding staff members, Wilson credits much of Westminster Oaks' successful storm response to residents referred to by the community as neighborhood block captains.

“We have 140 acres of land with 480 independent living residents, a 120-bed nursing home and 86 assisted living apartments,” he said. “Keeping track of 480 independent residents is a big job, so we've set up block captains, residents who take responsibility to oversee a group of residents in their block or on their street or on their floor.”

Block captains relay resident statuses and special needs to members of the administration, who then address any issues, Wilson said. “Or if we have any information that we need to get out to the residents, then we send the information down to the block captains, who then disperse the information to the 12 or 15 people that they're keeping contact with,” he added.

The block captains helped identify independent living residents who needed to obtain oxygen or refrigerate their insulin using the generators supplying power to the health center in the aftermath of the hurricane, Wilson said.

He and other community leaders communicated with the block captains via cell phone. “Also, we had one resident who's kind of in charge of all of the block captains, and she literally walked the whole campus, talking to people and other block captains,” he said.

A rare occurrence

Bad weather has caused Westminster Oaks to be without power before, Wilson said, but never for three consecutive days — at least not in the 13 years that he has been there. “And this hurricane was just a Category 1,” he said. “It could've been a whole lot worse if we'd gotten into a Category 2 or Category 3.”

The CCRC now is working with the city and the county to explore the possibility of restoring power more quickly after similar events in the future, Wilson said. The size of an outage — an estimated 100,000 people were without power after Hurricane Hermine — as well as above-ground power lines and the makeup of the power grid, which necessitates repairing lines in one section before issues in the next session can be addressed, can complicate matters, he added. Such talks, however, could benefit other senior living and long-term care providers in the area, too, Wilson said.

“There were a lot of assisted livings and nursing homes in Tallahassee that had the same issue but may not have had as much of the resources that Westminster Oaks had,” he said. “Because of the size of our community and the fact that we're a CCRC, we probably had a lot more resources to draw on than some of the other health centers in town.”

The LeadingAge Florida advocacy team also is working to improve natural disaster response time in the future.

“We realize the countless difficult issues to deal with in the aftermath of a hurricane, but our vulnerable seniors should be among the highest priorities with regard to recovery efforts,” the organization's president and CEO, Steve Bahmer, told McKnight's Senior Living.

LeadingAge Florida will continue to work with the governor's office, the Florida Department of Transportation and county and city officials, Bahmer said. “As we move beyond this situation and prepare for the future, we will continue to stress the importance of prioritizing the needs of our seniors to our community leaders,” he said.

A week after the storm, Westminster Oaks still was removing downed trees from the property, Wilson said, thankful that staff, residents and buildings escaped the storm relatively unscathed.

“We were lucky,” he said. “Westminster Oaks was a pretty good place to be during the storm.”

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