They are playing bingo every hour in the assisted living program at Miami Jewish Health. On Saturday night, when Hurricane Irma was expected to make its presence known, administrators were planning a “hurricane party.”
Refreshments were planned, and a piano player agreed to spend the night to provide live entertainment.
“Plus,” said 92-year-old Shirley Isackson, “they serve alcohol in this building.” She pauses. “In case anybody needs it.”
Jewish Health — the largest long-term care facility in the Southeast, has been here before. The nursing home and assisted living facility have been in operation for 77 years. The buildings withstood Hurricane Andrew and, more recently, Wilma. Rather than evacuating the elders who live there, the home has welcomed many newcomers — people who were ordered out of their homes, and want the security that a staff of nurses and caregivers offers, said President and CEO Jeffrey P. Freimark.
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We’re Florida. We knew this day would come.
Kurt Kelly, president and CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children
Jewish Health — with its 422 nursing home beds, 210 assisted and independent living apartments, and 32-bed hospital — is one of the area’s caregiving programs that are remaining open during Irma’s assault. For many of the home’s residents, evacuation wasn’t much of an option. Logistics aside, hastily moving frail elders, many of whom suffer from dementia, can result in confusion and trauma.
The home’s plans are to close the compound when Irma’s winds make travel dangerous, Freimark said. Both the nursing home and ALF will operate throughout the storm with a significantly larger staff, so that caregivers can rest, shower and decompress in shifts. “People are coming in,” Freimark said. “We’ll be on lockdown, alternating shifts. We’ll have rest and relaxation areas for employees. But once they are here, they’re here. That’s the way it has to be.”
Weather events always are difficult in the caregiving professions. But massive storms such as Irma can strain agencies to the limit. The mantra for most social service administrators over this past week has been preparedness.
Child welfare administrators began planning for the immense storm a week ago, said Kurt Kelly, president and CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children, an umbrella organization for the state’s 70 locally run foster care and adoption groups.
Administrators spoke this week with their counterparts in Texas, who are still drying out from Hurricane Harvey. In fairness, he said, they didn’t have quite as much lead time as Florida. Still, Kelly said, Texas administrators acknowledge they were largely caught flat-footed.
“They weren’t ready for that storm,” Kelly said. “Most states don’t have the understanding of what these things can be.”
The Florida Department of Children & Families, in contrast, requires every service provider — every foster home, every group home — to have a detailed disaster plan, including specific evacuation locations, Kelly said. Administrators weren’t planning. They were implementing.
Among the hurdles: DCF lawyers had to appear before judges across the state to get permission for some children to travel. Some kids in evacuation zones were sent to live with extended family or in homes on safer ground, for example. In Miami, the child welfare court issued “an administrative order … permitting travel anywhere in the U.S. during the state of emergency for Hurricane Irma,” said DCF spokeswoman Jessica K. Sims.
“We’re Florida,” Kelly said. “We knew this day would come.”
Caregivers for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities faced additional challenges. Some group home residents require uninterrupted power for breathing machines. Others can’t risk running out of life-saving medications. Still others need supervision to eat and bathe.
Like foster homes, group home operators must develop detailed emergency management plans, said Melanie Etters, a spokeswoman for the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities. “Those homes in evacuation zones will be required to temporarily relocate their residents, along with staff, to the off-site location specified within their respective plans.”
“Group homes are letting our regional offices know their plans, and if they are evacuating and where they are going,” Etters said. “Many group homes have a 30-day supply of medications, and because we are in a state of emergency, prescriptions may be refilled early if people are worried about running out.”
Many group homes have generators, Etters said, in the event they lose power.
Clint Bower, who runs the MACtown program for adults with disabilities, said he learned how to prepare for a devastating storm from his former bosses at United Cerebral Palsy, which was hammered by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. “They told me all the horror stories from Andrew, what they went through,” Bower said.
Many of MACtown’s residents are difficult to supervise, and can be challenging behaviorally. “Taking our people to shelters was really not an option — even special needs shelters,” Bower said. “They can’t deal with our population very well.” Still, Bower said he didn’t feel comfortable leaving his clients in the group homes.
Bower closed his five group homes in North Miami, and evacuated about 52 clients to the group’s main campus just off Northeast 62nd Street in Little Haiti. The compound holds a 56-bed, three-story apartment complex for people with special needs, and a large auditorium where the residents gather during the day. On Friday, residents socialized in the center, and then returned to their homes. People evacuated from the group homes then spent the night in the auditorium on cots and inflatable beds.
MACtown has a generator, a full shed with bottled water, enough food for several days, and a reliable staff, Bower said, to care for group home residents while they wait for Irma to pass. The complex has two nurses and is next-door to a fire station, so Bower said he was confident his residents would be safe.
Taking our people to shelters was really not an option — even special needs shelters. They can’t deal with our population very well.
Clint Bower, who runs the MACtown program for adults with disabilities,
“Sunday could be a rough day,” he said, as some of the program’s residents are used to going outside and getting exercise. “There’s lots to think about,” he added. “We try to think of every base that needs to be covered. But you never do.”
At Jewish Health, managers were converting conference and therapy rooms into makeshift dorms, so caregivers had a place to sleep, watch television or read a book during down time. The home arranged for food and snacks, and nurses and aides had a place to shower and freshen up between shifts.
Shirley Isackson moved into the home two years ago when her recently deceased husband required more care than she could give. Isackson said she had been through some rough winters in her native Michigan, including a snowstorm that almost covered her home’s windows. But, “this will be a first,” she said of Irma.
Some of the nursing home and ALF residents understood what was headed their way, and others felt it, even if they didn’t understand it, said Chure Gladwell, a vice president.
Isackson said she planned to attend the party Saturday night. The main attraction: pina coladas — and not the virgin kind.
“I’m not really worried,” she said. “I think I’m safe.