When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast around Halloween, senior living providers faced communication breakdown, power outages, and flooding as they continued caring for their residents. Some experienced extensive damage, while others counted themselves lucky.
Although evacuation is sometimes necessary, keeping senior living residences operational during severe storms by proper preparation can help stem the tremendous losses that catastrophic events often incur.
A nursing home in New York City’s Rockaway Park lost power completely during the storm when its basement—where the backup generator was located—flooded, leaving the facility’s inhabitants in the dark and without heat. With no ability to keep their nearly 200 residents warm, and with insufficient food, water, and medical supplies, the nursing home was forced to evacuate, sending seniors to emergency shelters throughout the city.
Days later, some families still did not know where their loved ones were or if they had even survived the storm, according to reports. Stories like this magnify the importance of preparation for catastrophic events.
Disaster Preparedness Plans
All assisted living providers are required to have disaster plans, but while those plans are essential, they still have room for improvement.
“We learn something every time,” says Mary Lynn Curran, vice president of clinical risk management at Willis, an insurance brokerage and risk management consulting firm.
“Having proper lists; printing things out before you know the power’s going to go out; having supplies of food and water; calling families of assisted living residents to ask if they want to pick up their family members—every disaster, we get a new list of lessons learned.”
Despite having been prepared, Willis says many clients are digging themselves out weeks later.
“We’re still doing quite a lot of triage with clients right now on the properties. [As of Wednesday] more than 95% of them have full power back on, and things are getting back as much as possible to normal,” says Michael Pokora, managing director at Willis.
The most common damage was due to flooding, especially from rivers overflowing, says Jeff Chester, Advanced Catastrophes Technologies (ACT). ACT’s client communities reported anywhere from one to four feet of water at ground level or in the basement.
Similar to the Rockaway Park nursing home, other buildings with basement generators also suffered huge losses, says Curran. Fortunately, she says, many assisted living communities locate their generators adjacent to the building to allow for easier fueling, saving them from flood damage.
The immediate calls Chester’s company received during the first night of the storm were for generators. Finding vendors once the storm has hit can be a struggle due to demand, he says.
Larger senior living chains may have an easier time getting ready and recovering.
Seattle, Wash.-headquartered Emeritus had about 25 properties in the storm’s path and 20 more in the region, but did not sustain severe damage, says Chris Guay, senior vice president of operations.
“Part of that was location; part was preparation; part was changes we made ourselves in the last several years,” he says. “We’ve been through quite a few of these, whether it’s Nor’easters, blizzards, or hurricanes.”
Although generators can be expensive—decent generators cost in the six figures range, according to Guay—it can cost up to three times as much when a building has to be evacuated.
“It’s worth investing now and being safe, as opposed to being in the middle of a storm and unable to obtain a generator,” he says.
Chelsea Senior Living, another provider with a significant East Coast presence, considers itself lucky—but even it did not escape the storm unscathed.
A few Chelsea communities lost power for five to six days, says Michael Levine, vice president of sales.
“We were properly prepared, although we didn’t expect to be [without power] for so many days, or to have so many of our buildings [lose power],” he says.
Communication breakdown ended up being a much bigger problem, as email and phone service went down completely. The provider is now considering new communications protocol.
“We’re going to design something on our website, so if [anything] happens within our communities, it pops up on the website instantaneously,” Levine says. “We’ll try to set up different ways to communicate with families, including an email chain.”
The total storm-related costs and damages is unknown, as insurance agencies are still assessing communities. By some estimates, the total cost of the storm’s damage to the entire affected region ranges between $20-30 billion of insured loss, says Pokora.
Six or seven years ago, the senior living world was in “pretty bad shape” in terms of disaster preparedness, says Curran, but it has gotten much better.
“Disaster planning has to be very proactive, and not at the last minute,” says Chester. “Evacuation plans are critical, or when remaining sheltered in a place, backup power is also critical.”
Written by Alyssa Gerace
This article is sponsored by the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) as part of its efforts to advance excellence and explore topics impacting the future of senior living. For more information about ALFA, visit www.alfa.org.