Hurricanes Florence and Michael have exacted a steep toll on senior living providers throughout the Southeastern United States, including Affinity Living Group. Affinity is the largest provider in the region and one of the largest in the nation, operating more than 140 communities across six states.
With about 90 of those facilities in the Carolinas, Affinity had to execute a large-scale emergency response as Hurricane Florence battered the states in mid-September. Affinity evacuated about 550 residents from 10 buildings. All Affinity residents remained safe throughout the storm and its aftermath, but at least 200 staff members “lost everything,” including nearly all their personal effects and their homes, Affinity CEO Charlie Trefzger told Senior Housing News. Two Affinity buildings were seriously flooded and likely will not be re-occupied for months, and the company is looking at total storm-related damages in excess of $10 million.
While still reeling in the aftermath of Florence, Affinity had to go into disaster response mode all over again, when Hurricane Michael slammed the Florida Panhandle last week. About a dozen Affinity properties were directly in harm’s way, and five were forced to go on generator power as a result of the hurricane. Even more properties, stretching from Florida through Georgia and up the Carolina coast, remain on high alert to the possibility of Michael-related flooding, as even a modest amount of rain could cause the region’s already swollen rivers to overflow their banks.
Though the situation on the ground remains in flux, Affinity is now beginning to shift from crisis response into recovery mode, with help from the senior housing industry as well as outside organizations. This process will not be easy, but Affinity is planning to move forward with ongoing development plans at nine sites in the Southeast. And Trefzger is confident that the company will regain its footing and return to normal operations, pointing to the dedication and resilience that its workforce has demonstrated throughout these trying weeks.
Inside Affinity’s emergency operations
Leaders with Affinity watched with growing concern as Hurricane Florence approached the U.S. coastline, and it became clear that the massive hurricane was going to hit some of the company’s key North Carolina markets.
“At the height of it, we were being told to expect landfall in the range of a Category 4 [hurricane] in the Wilmington area, where we had 24 facilities in harm’s way,” Trefzger told SHN.
From past experience, the Affinity team knew that hurricane-force winds and storm surges could wreak havoc, and that if Florence lingered over the state for a few days, as predicted, it would cause devastating floods.
Trefzger stationed himself in an emergency operations center at the company’s headquarters in Hickory, North Carolina, to oversee the preparations for the storm and keep tabs on what was happening during and after it.
As any senior living provider must, Affinity focused in large measure on the basics, such as making sure that necessary supplies were on hand. This included working with pharmacy partners to have a 3-week supply of medications, acquiring about 600 cots, having refrigerated trucks loaded with emergency food inventories, and making sure that generators were in place at all properties in danger of losing power.
“We ran into some interesting challenges,” Trefzger said.
One challenge: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can requisition generators in an emergency situation, even if those generators are reserved and have been paid for by a company such as Affinity, Trefzger said. As a result, Affinity found that it had to make other arrangements at the last minute. The company did acquire generators for all its at-risk properties — but this was no small task when a major hurricane was approaching and generators were in high demand.
Affinity also relied on technology. One member of the corporate leadership from Hickory was embedded at each facility in the storm’s path, and they used a mobile app to provide status reports every 30 minutes.
“How much fuel they had, was power on, was water running, were there any injuries to residents, all those sorts of things that an owner would naturally want to know, was updated on a dashboard that I could see in my emergency ops center,” Trefzger said. “The other thing … was folks reporting on Facebook in all those same facilities, so family members could go on Facebook and see pictures of loved ones, and get updates on what was going on.”
Affinity also fielded questions from family members through Facebook, as well as through its call center, which was open continuously through the storm. The call center reached out proactively to family members to tell them if and when their loved one was going to be evacuated. Nine Affinity communities and one emergency shelter were the evacuation sites.
During and after the storm itself, emergency response teams with the state of North Carolina proved invaluable, Trefzger said.
“We got great support,” he said. “In some cases, they even sent medical transports to move our most [health]-challenged residents.”
North Carolina also has an advanced system for monitoring river levels, which Affinity relied on. At the height of the storm, it appeared that one of the Affinity communities that had received evacuees was itself in danger of flooding and so was evacuated.
There was only one minor injury to a resident in the course of all these storm response actions. Now, all evacuated residents have returned home, except for the 147 people who were living in the two properties that sustained class 3 groundwater intrusion.
“[The flooding included] organic matter and nasty stuff in the storm surge, so it requires you do a thorough remediation of any bacteria and microbes,” Trefzger said. “We had to pull up flooring, throw away furniture.”
A Florida-based company called Coastal Reconstruction Group* started working on the buildings almost immediately after the storm passed, but it will likely take months before they can be re-occupied.
Staff members sustain losses, show resilience
Having the right resources and operational logistics was only one aspect of the emergency response. Critically, Affinity’s workforce executed on plans and showed extraordinary commitment and fortitude in the face of staggering personal losses.
“We’ve had a lot of heroes throughout the system,” Trefzger said. “What was most humbling was the fact that many of them knew they had lost their belongings and knew they had no house to come home to, and stayed at work and continued to care for residents through this.”
Now, some of these workers are staying at Affinity communities for several days at a time, sleeping on-site in between shifts and then sometimes driving long distances to stay with family or friends when they are not at work.
Affinity is trying to help its staff get back on their feet, and has also received an outpouring from the community and the senior living industry, Trefzger said.
The provider already had a system called “Affinity Strong,” through which staff members could apply for and receive help during times of need. Now, that program is being expanded into a 501c3 nonprofit foundation, so that Affinity can seek and accept outside donations as well.
“We sent out a request for help and we were overwhelmed by what we received in return,” Trefzger said. “It was startling how much people cared.”
Within the industry, organizations such as LTC Properties (NYSE: LTC) have taken a leading role in rallying support. LTC is a California-based real estate investment trust that counts Affinity among its operating partners, although no LTC-owned Affinity properties were directly impacted by the storm. Still, LTC has made a “considerable donation” to the recovery effort and has launched a webpage to encourage and enable other companies and individuals to follow suit. Its CEO, Wendy Simpson, is trying to keep the plight of hurricane-ravaged senior living companies in the spotlight.
“The aftermath of natural disasters can be as devastating, if not more devastating, than the event itself,” Simpson told SHN in an emailed statement. “Countless senior housing staff members demonstrated loyalty to their residents by ensuring residents were evacuated safely while providing residents’ care despite the staff members knowing they had possibly lost their homes and belongings, and there were incidences where the staff could not be sure their families were safe. In an effort to assist these unsung heroes, LTC contributed to a local charity and launched an industry outreach program encouraging peers to do the same.”
Affinity is also working with social services, chaplain groups, parishes and dioceses to provide spiritual and emotional support to staff members, recognizing that post-traumatic stress is a major and lingering effect after someone experiences a natural disaster. In this case, the effects could be compounded by the fact that Hurricane Michael hit hard on the heels of Florence.
“People are still shell-shocked from Florence, so getting up and going again at the community level has been quite challenging … we’ve had to keep people focused and directed,” Trefzger said, of the need to re-start emergency response protocols for Michael.
While getting back to normal operations will be a multi-faceted process, supporting its workforce and resuming more normal staffing patterns is a top priority for Trefzger.
“It’s going to take a while, but we’re going to stay the course,” he said.
Written by Tim Mullaney
*Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story referred to this company as “Coastal Restoration.” SHN regrets the error.