LeadingAge Magazine · March/April 2013 • Volume 03 • Number 02

Providers Fight Back When Mother Nature Comes Calling

March 03, 2013 | by Arlene Karidis

Hurricane Sandy did tremendous damage in October, and LeadingAge members were among those hit hard. But teamwork and help from across the country helped these providers make the best of a dangerous situation.

When Hurricane Sandy snaked up the Northeast coast last October, it hit some LeadingAge members hard. Administrators, their staff and the community acted fast and creatively—in some cases literally working in the dark and underwater. Some in drier, non-chaotic stations deployed their staff from across the country to help. And through a LeadingAge-wide relief fund, individual residents and staff were supported in multiple ways as they recovered from the storm’s impact.

Long Beach Medical Center, Long Beach, NY, sits on a barrier island off Long Island’s south shore, with its hospital and nursing home connected by a walkway. When a 17-foot tidal surge left the Long Island hospital’s basement 10 feet underwater, both buildings were devastated. The surge paralyzed the mechanical and electrical systems. It stopped the kitchen and laundry services in their tracks; and threw central supply, the pharmacy and family clinic out of commission, as these operations were housed in the basement. The Komanoff Center for Geriatric & Rehabilitative Medicine, a 200-bed skilled nursing community, lost everything on its first floor.

They knew it was coming, and prepared.

“This was the second time in two years we were threatened by a hurricane, so you might say our evacuation during Irene was our rehearsal, and it paid off,” says Dennis Conway, The Komanoff Center’s administrator. “We knew the steps to take, the contacts to make and the arrangements needed to assure that our residents would be properly evacuated.”

The day before the storm, staff worked furiously coordinating placements, copying medical records and gathering medications and equipment to send with each resident.

“We were in touch with the County’s Office of Emergency Management and Public Health for transportation. Within hours our 182 residents were on their way to 11 different health care [sites],” says Conway.

The real challenges began the morning after the storm.

The Komanoff Center’s first floor, which housed administrative offices, the rehabilitation program, dental services and utilities, was three feet deep in salt water. The walls were covered in mud; chairs, desks and computers floated in deep pools. Administrators got on their cell phones in the dark and went to work. They recruited contractors to gut the first floor and preserve what files they could. Many paper files were soaked but were shipped to Michigan for a freeze-drying process to salvage them.

“We ran phone lines through resident rooms on the second floor to temporarily relocate our administrative operations, as well as physical therapy, occupational therapy and other essential functions. We coordinated the outsourcing of laundry, food and laboratory services, installed new furnaces, repaired the emergency generator, and fire alarm system,” says Conway. He estimates the first floor damage at $1.3 million.

The nursing home reopened on January 28, operating at 75 percent capacity with 150 beds.

“I’m still sitting in what had been a patient room, which is my office now. We have rented furniture and my file cabinet consists of boxes,” says Conway. He anticipates the first floor will be fully restored by May.

“But we are back, and we made sure residents knew we would be,” he adds. Conway and his staff visited residents while working to put the Komanoff back together.

“Our residents look at The Komanoff as their home. We wanted them to know that we were still connected to them—and that we were coming back.”

Asbury Tower is a Springpoint Senior Living community with 350 affordable senior living units on the ocean in Asbury Park, NJ.

Though they knew the storm was coming, 65 residents chose to stay in the building they knew as home. They ended up losing power; the first floor flooded; and much of the grounds were underwater. But staff had acted fast, before the storm, to secure safety. They called resident meetings, saw the transfer of assisted living residents to family members, or transported them to a Springpoint CCRC, where Asbury Tower’s staff stayed with them.

With the storm moving closer, there was more work.

“Foremost, we had to know who was staying, who was leaving, make appropriate arrangements, and assess for safety,” says Nancy Hamsik, senior executive director of Asbury Tower.

“We created a list of residents, noting their status and contact information. We arranged bus service for those who wanted to go to shelters. Then, we went door to door, confirming who was still here and that everyone was okay,” says Hamsik.

Within 24 hours after Sandy struck, a generator was pumping electricity through the building. Then there was a setback.

On Election Day, the power went down again when a fire in the electrical room blew up the transformer.

“The fire chief said, ‘You have to get everybody out of the building.’ So on Election Day with a bus running to the polls, we quickly evacuated our 26-floor building with no operating elevators,” recalls Hamsik.

It was a coordinated effort with emergency personnel, starting at the top and working their way down, confirming that everyone with mobility issues was evacuated and no one was remaining.

“Several residents were literally carried down 23 flights of stairs, as they had difficulty walking but wanted to live on high floors for the ocean view,” says Hamsik. Meanwhile, staff staged residents in the dining area while they filled out papers to get them into shelters, gathered their belongings, and made lanyards noting residents’ home addresses.

“I can’t stress enough how important communication is, because things can change hour to hour,” says Hamsik, who was continually in contact not only through resident meetings and storm updates, but unit checks.

Communication continued long past the storm, especially through the transfer processes. And there were three of them: the transfer of the first group to a short-term shelter; a second transfer of these residents and those who stayed behind who now faced mandatory evacuation; then it was on to a hotel.

Communication was seamless with the Springpoint corporate office and government agencies.

“The Office of Emergency Management, the mayor, and fire chief were constantly calling, asking what we needed. Asbury Park’s Social Services got us additional transportation and visited to offer other support.

“We coordinated obtaining buses from our corporate office for the evacuation after the fire. And our vice president of operations, David Woodward, was my point person for anything else I needed. He coordinated with other Springpoint staff so I could focus on the building and residents,” says Hamsik.

By Dec. 2, all seniors had returned home, and the building was off the generator, back to full electrical power by Jan. 4.

“The lower level is still a work in progress. But we anticipate having everything to where it was by April,” says Hamsik.

The Hebrew Home at Riverdale has a different story than Komanoff and Asbury Tower, as their campus withstood the storm. But the story is no less of a whirlwind; they took in 325 evacuees from other providers throughout greater New York.

The Hebrew Home reaches 10,000 consumers through its skilled nursing community, senior housing, an elder abuse shelter, community programs and services and home health care.

“We set up a triage intake in the lobby on the fly—with only a few hours’ notice and no idea of the number of people who were coming,” says CEO Daniel Reingold.

“Six a.m. the day after the storm, a cavalcade of ambulances pulled onto our campus with plates from as far as Missouri and California,” he recalls.

Many evacuees came with no medications or physicians’ orders. Staff pieced together information by reaching out to the providers they came from, and from the residents themselves. Otherwise they assessed from scratch. The Home’s volunteers were an invaluable addition to the team.

Admissions went smoothly, but they got another surprise a week after the storm.

“We recently purchased property next door that had been mothballed for years,” says Reingold. “On a Thursday evening, the Office of Emergency Management called and said, ‘We need you to make that building available.’ We were getting another 161 evacuees that Sunday.”

Within 48 hours, a building with no working elevators, heat, or hot water was up and running—minus 70 tons of debris that had been hauled off, and with furniture that had been in storage, and cots supplied by the state.

This last group—mainly psychiatric adult home evacuees—had spent a week in a gymnasium and arrived only with bags of clothes.

“They looked traumatized, bewildered and anxious,” says Reingold.

He mobilized an all-hands-on-deck staff, from every part of the organization, to notify families they had their loved ones, to set up a heightened security system and prepare extra beds and meals.

Within three hours this newest group had hot showers, were fed and in clean clothes. Since it was Thanksgiving, Hebrew Home’s chefs not only geared up for the increased volume but put together a traditional turkey dinner, served by its board members.

Because the newcomers needed structure, they were engaged in art therapy and other activities that could be set up quickly, with a full activity program in place days later. Operations were slowly but surely returning closer to normal.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, LeadingAge and the Association of Jewish Aging Services (AJAS) appealed to members for recovery donations. That first day, generous donations started coming in from state associations, members and individuals.

“Disaster relief funds are allocated based on need reported by administrators,” according to Nancy Hooks, LeadingAge vice president, member relations and engagement.

“Whether it was food, personal items or holiday gifts, we helped to supply whatever was needed by member staff and residents to re-establish their stability,” says Hooks.

To date, over $80,000 has been distributed from the Fund.

Individual members were proactive. Besides finding creative housing—from opening unused wings to house staff, to fast-tracked, major building rehab projects—providers were innovative.

Long Beach Medical Center sent staff to several other providers to help, while also preserving their jobs.

“We appealed to providers to contract employees we had to lay off. We arranged for them to pay us for their services, while our team cared for our residents and theirs,” says Conway. “This not only preserved their jobs but kept their health benefits intact.”

The forward thinking extends to ideas to circumvent future disasters.

For instance, architects have been brought in to devise plans to present to FEMA, like moving electrical panels, furnaces and other essential equipment and supplies to higher floors.

Springpoint wants to establish a unique “first-right-of-refusal” agreement with a provider of industrial generators, to supply emergency generators to Springpoint communities should there be another major weather event.

“This allows us to have on-call access to emergency generators that provide nearly full power, without having to incur the cost of purchasing the generators,” says Woodward.

For more stories of how LeadingAge members stood up to Hurricane Sandy, please see “Hurricane Sandy: A Retrospective” on the LeadingAge website.