LeadingAge Magazine · March-April 2018 • Volume 08 • Number 02

Resilience and Generosity in the Face of Disaster

March 13, 2018 | by Gene Mitchell

The recent hurricanes, floods, fires and mudslides killed many people and did tremendous harm to millions more, from the Caribbean to the West Coast. Here is how some LeadingAge members fared, and how the LeadingAge family came through to help those in need.

Late 2017 will long be remembered for the suffering and damage inflicted on people and property in the Caribbean, Florida, Texas and California by 3 hurricanes and, in California, wildfires and mudslides that ravaged enormous areas.

LeadingAge members were among the millions harmed and endangered. Members in Puerto Rico suffered along with the general devastation of Hurricane Maria that struck in September; the island will require years to recover.

In Texas, near-biblical levels of flooding resulted from Hurricane Harvey, which dropped up to 5 feet of rain in some areas.

Florida, lashed by Hurricane Irma, was “lucky” in the sense that the damage was not as severe as forecasters feared, but the storm was among the strongest on record and did plenty of damage. (Several Caribbean islands suffered terribly from Irma.)

Finally, devastating wildfires struck California between October and December, accompanied in some areas by mudslides; some of the fires lasted into January.

Closely Spaced, Destructive Hurricanes Affected Providers

The devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was especially acute. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have come to the U.S. mainland in the aftermath, many of them permanently.

Three National Church Residences housing sites in Puerto Rico suffered damage.

Villa Providencia
Villa Providencia receives a relief check for $18,000 from
Roberto Muñiz, president and CEO of Parker and a LeadingAge
board member, in December.

Villa Providencia in Guaynabo went 2 months without electricity, suffered significant flooding in the front rooms, and had serious water shortages. The community ran on an emergency generator for a month. One resident, Inocensia Rosario, cooked and carried food up to residents during the recovery. Service Coordinator Natalee Santiago’ parents lost their house in the storm and she was unable to connect with them for 2 weeks. The community pulled through with the help of families, churches, charities and other agencies who helped sustain them.

At Villa Esperanza in Carolina, the electricity was out and local roads were closed. Fortunately, the husband of Property Manager Loana Yeinsip had been saving cash in anticipation, enabling them to buy more fuel for the generator. A gazebo on the site was completely destroyed, and there was water damage in the community room.

Santiago Fajardo Village first lost electricity during Hurricane Irma; it also faced a cash shortage, but fortunately a nearby gas station did not charge them for fuel. The building suffered water damage and went 2 months without elevators. The community’s generator had to be limited to a few hours a day to avoid running out of fuel. Families and other volunteers pitched in to help clean up and serve residents on upper floors, and local churches made donations.

Villa Esperanza
Villa Esperanza

Torre Jesus Sanchez Eraso, an affordable housing community in Bayamon, is part of the Elderly Housing Development & Operations Corporation (EHDOC) system. It lost power and required food to be brought in for the residents. Maintenance Manager Anibal Flores (whose own home lacked water and electricity for months after the hurricane) worked more than 40 hours straight after the storm, including carrying residents up and down stairs while the elevator was out.

Fajardo Housing for the Elderly, part of the Retirement Housing Foundation (RHF) system, lost electricity and water, had difficulty obtaining food, and had problems with rats and mosquitos caused by debris from the storm. Local churches, banks and the mayor’s office helped in delivering food and water, and one resident’s connection with FEMA helped obtain fuel for the generator. One resident lost her sister in the storm, and staff who live nearby did not have electricity or water for months. One resident, Fred Torres, couldn’t contact his wife and daughter for weeks.

According to Stuart Hartman, RHF’s vice president, affordable housing operations, Fajardo Housing’s emergency generator, though limited to part-time use after the first couple of days, powers one outlet in each apartment, so refrigerators could be kept running. He adds that the community shares an electricity grid with an adjacent U.S. Army base, so power was restored more quickly than in other areas of the island.

“I spent 3 days in Puerto Rico in the middle of December,” says Hartman. “There were mixed emotions because once you were on the ground and saw the severity of the damage done to the island in general, it was distressing, but when we saw how well our community came through the hurricane it was quite refreshing.”

Sunny Isle Housing is another RHF community, in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Hartman says it suffered a small amount of damage and a loss of power, but unfortunately, when the power goes down there, so does the water supply. A cistern on the property allowed flushing toilets, though the water was not potable.

Volunteers of America (VOA), which operates 2 communities in Puerto Rico, launched “Project Esperanza,” which sent VOA staff members from around the U.S. to Puerto Rico for one-week shifts, delivering water and other supplies. One of the VOA communities, the Victor Hernandez Building on the west coast of the island, went weeks without electricity. Another VOA community, a halfway house for recently released federal inmates, did not have electricity until early December.

In December, VOA participated in a groundbreaking for Parque para la Tercera Edad in Yabucoa (where Hurricane Maria made landfall). The community-oriented park and senior center will include an open-air pavilion and classroom, community gardening space, and will be accessible to people with all levels of mobility.

In Texas, the overwhelming quantity of rain from Hurricane Harvey was the greatest hazard.

At Seven Acres Jewish Senior Care Services, the entire ground floor was flooded, forcing all first-floor residents to be moved to the second floor. Things got worse when the Texas Health and Human Services Commission required that the former first-floor residents (about 150) be moved out of Seven Acres. A number of workers had to be let go as well.

Buckner Calder Woods in Beaumont, TX, about 90 miles east of Houston, is 24 feet above sea level, but that doesn’t mean 63 inches of rain in 5 days isn’t a crisis. Executive Director Ben Mazzara says the community suffered little damage, but the excessive rain knocked out Beaumont’s water system for 9 days. “Fortunately, we had plenty of food and supplies,” says Mazzara, “plus staff living on campus—though many of them suffered damages on their own homes.”

A cache of 2,000 gallons of bottled water mitigated the water problem, and toilets were flushed using water from the community’s swimming pool. One potential problem was avoided when Buckner was able to get 2 residents needing dialysis to a sister community in Houston. The Buckner system also sent extra staff from other sites to help as needed.

Brazos Towers at Bayou Manor suffered a power failure due to serious flooding in the basement of one of its buildings that knocked out all the electrical equipment, though generators took up some of the slack. Sheryl Callahan, president/CEO of Brazos Presbyterian Homes, says some elevators went out, and later 2 floors of health care residents had to be evacuated because of the heat. LeadingAge member Clarewood House Retirement Community helped by taking in 22 residents, while 8 more went to Brazos’ other community, The Hallmark. Brazos Towers was able to send their own staff with those residents.

Later, all of the west tower independent living residents had to be evacuated to stay with families and friends for 3 weeks. Inoperable elevators required some residents to be taken out with a Stryker evacuation chair.

Flooding wreaked havoc on Brazos Towers’ underground parking garage, which the city had previously deemed flood-proof due to the installation of large flood doors. The water, however, found another way in. Staff managed to get all of the cars out of the garage beforehand, but many staff had to watch while their own cars, parked in a surface lot outside, succumbed to floodwaters (41 vehicles were lost).

“Because LeadingAge gave us money, and some residents donated money, we were able to give more than 26 staff members between $1,000 and $4,000,” says Callahan. “Some applied for FEMA funds too.”

Repair costs have exceeded $4 million, some of which is not covered by flood insurance, says Callahan, because it’s below grade.

Holly Hall in Houston was spared much damage but became home to 165 relatives of residents and staff. The community sat high enough to avoid flooding but was surrounded by water.

“We were just lucky about our location,” says Kimberly Weathers, senior director of regulated services. “But none of us could get out even if we wanted to.”

About 20 Holly Hall staff, however, suffered major damage or even lost their houses. One close call was a potential shortage of medications that developed when a local pharmacy couldn’t overcome distribution problems and failed to deliver all the medications needed. “We got by, but would have been in harm’s way if it had lasted longer,” says Amy Ward, senior director of operations.

In Florida, Hurricane Irma did damage in several areas of the state.

Santa Fe Senior Living had to make decisions for 2 of its retirement communities: evacuate or ride out the storm in place? According to President Troy Hart, there was a “sense of impending doom” in the Miami area before the hurricane made landfall. Santa Fe ultimately decided to evacuate its Miami community, East Ridge at Cutler Bay. About 100 skilled nursing residents were taken to the organization’s Village at Gainesville, which created its own challenges because while the latter had the most space available, it does not provide skilled nursing services. The other 100 East Ridge residents, all in independent living, went to a Disney resort in Orlando.

Santa Fe seriously considered evacuating its west coast community, The Terraces at Bonita Springs, but decided to stay in place; the building suffered minor roof damage and a little water damage but nothing serious. About half of the independent living residents elected to go elsewhere during the storm.

SPM Property Management operates 43 senior housing communities in Florida, and all suffered some damage in the hurricane. The Glades Diamond community, in a rural area, suffered roof damage from falling trees and was without power for a week. The Belle Glade mayor and his wife personally knocked on doors and told residents to evacuate. With help from LeadingAge Florida and some of its members, the residents were supplied with meals, water and even food for pets.

In Naples, FL, The Arlington weathered the storm successfully, which allowed it to be an oasis for others. The 2-year-old community is built to withstand hurricanes, according to Executive Director Rick LoCastro. It hosted as many as 300 people, including residents from other communities, residents’ families and others who needed shelter from the storm. More than 50 first responders and local law enforcement officers were housed as well for a few days. A robust backup generator system prevented serious power problems.

In California, wildfires from October through January devastated massive areas and forced evacuations from Sonoma County to San Diego. Dozens of California senior living communities required at least some evacuation. Mudslides during the rainy season wreaked their own havoc; Casa Dorinda, a life plan community in Montecito, lost power and water and was forced to evacuate during the rain. LeadingAge member Vista del Monte took in a number of Casa Dorinda residents.

PEP Housing in Santa Rosa had to evacuate residents and some employees lost their homes, but the organization still set up a collection area for goods to distribute to fire victims. LeadingAge California set up its own California Disaster Recovery Fund to help affected members. On PEP Housing employee lost her mother when the fire raged through a mobile home park. Financial support has been provided to dozens of area families and many were helped to find local people who would share their homes.

At Friends House in Santa Rosa, a quickly moving wildfire forced evacuation of all residents. The fire never reached the property but there was a delay before residents could return. Most residents in assisted living or skilled nursing were taken in by The Meadows of Napa Valley and several by University Retirement Community in Davis. A few skilled nursing residents were admitted to local hospitals, while independent living residents stayed with family or friends.

In Walnut Creek, Jennings Court, an affordable housing community, was without electricity for 3 days and gas for 5 days, while half of the residents self-evacuated. The other half were taken in temporarily by an Oakland community. Poor air quality due to the fires caused difficulty for some residents, especially those with COPD.

Providers Helping Providers

As the scale of the ongoing destruction became clear, LeadingAge members and friends wanted to help. Over the following months, LeadingAge’s Disaster Relief Fund raised $684,000, which was distributed to member organizations, their staff and residents, in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and California.

In countless cases, LeadingAge members gave assistance to providers in distress: Food, clothing, staff help, transportation and more was shared. Members took in other organizations’ residents or staff who needed to be evacuated.

In December, a small delegation visited Puerto Rico to see the member sites that had been affected, and to distribute money from the relief funds to help communities and employees get back on their feet. Roberto Muñiz, president and CEO of Parker, is a LeadingAge board member and a native of Puerto Rico. He visited the island along with Michelle Norris, executive vice president of National Church Residences; Mike King, CEO of Volunteers of America; and Nancy Hooks, LeadingAge’s vice president of state partnerships. Also in the party were a videographer employed by National Church Residences and Muñiz’ nephew, who was the driver.

“It was an amazing experience, very emotional,” says Muñiz. “I was born there and lived there until age 15. I have 7 brothers and sisters there, and 25-30 nephews and nieces. I was able to talk to them regularly, and they kept me posted, and I was helping as much as I was able to. My family lives on the northwest coast of the island, which was pretty hard hit.”

“It was a great honor to represent LeadingAge with this very good cause, to be able to visit communities in Puerto Rico, and to bring such a great message to them,” Muñiz continues. “Being able to show that there are people who care for the elders on the island, and to be able to talk to those who manage those communities, was incredibly rewarding. It was more rewarding to speak to residents, ask about their experiences, and how secure they felt during this catastrophe in the island.”

Muñiz saw some common themes in the communities visited:

  • “Everyone who leads those communities knew they had to be there for the residents and the staff. And maintenance crews were present with them too, in many cases up to 48 hours at a time.”
  • “Residents were amazed … and grateful for what they were doing for them.”
  • “Based on my conversations with residents, it was an opportunity for them to connect and support each other. ‘This was an emergency. We knew we had to chip in to help each other.’ They took ownership of those buildings.”
  • “Most buildings were multistory and had not had electricity for a long time. There was no access to elevators. People carried people up and down the stairs because they had doctor appt or had to be treated downstairs. It was an opportunity for community and for the staff to show that they cared, and that the residents come first!”

Muñiz also noted that the housing residents they visited were, in relative terms, the “lucky ones”: “They have the right structures, the right building codes to protect them. And staffing and resources to help them manage. On the other hand, those who do not have that are still suffering. Some people in my family didn’t have electricity at all, for 4 months. The government is not placing that same emphasis in those parts of the island.”

LeadingAge worked with National Church Residences to launch a Hurricane Services for Seniors Hotline. Here is a video about the hotline, and a second video about the situation in Puerto Rico.

Lessons Learned and the Value of Preparation

The extensive damage at Brazos Towers taught Sheryl Callahan a few lessons: “The Monday before [the hurricane] we had a department head meeting to prepare. Unfortunately, we did not mandate that staff had to stay at the community. A lot of us did stay, starting on Friday. In the future, whenever a hurricane is imminent, we’ll mandate that all department heads have to be here and ride out the storm.”

Communication was another issue to be reconsidered. “Our phones were out at one point, so couldn’t contact people,” says Callahan. “As a result, we’ve established a mass communication system so that whenever we have a situation we can do mass emails to family members and let them know what’s going on.

Callahan also notes that the community’s positive experience with a borrowed Stryker chair, which allowed residents to be brought down stairs while elevators were out, has led to the purchase of a new one by the community.

At NCR’s Santiago Fajardo Village, the experience showed the need for better communications—specifically, a satellite phone—and a larger diesel fuel tank, water filters and solar panels. The experience of extended power outages at other Puerto Rican sites will lead those providers to upgrade generators and fuel tanks.

Holly Hall benefited from its relationship with the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council (SETRAC), which prepares the region for man-made or natural emergencies, disasters and mass casualty events. “We do have a disaster plan and it was fortunate for us that we participated in a regional exercise with SETRAC, based on a category 4 hurricane, says Holly Hall’s Kimberly Weathers. “We got to practice it and found holes in our disaster plan. I felt we were more prepared.”

Weathers warns that communities that are likely to host family members, staff and children during an emergency need to prepare for the consequences.

“With so many extra people on campus we had to plan for meals, but had we continued much longer we’d have to look at how far we could have kept that going,” says Weathers.

Amy Ward of Holly Hall emphasized the need to set ground rules for staff and family who were on campus. “Remind them to bring enough toiletries and medications for their stay. And it’s our residents’ home, so dress and act appropriately. One of the biggest challenges was what to do for babysitting for the staff who brought their children here. Our activities department became the default babysitter. Some evenings, kids were in the activities room until 1 a.m. The activities staff couldn’t get a break. We’ve talked about buying some game systems, so kids could entertain themselves.”

Ward also recommends careful planning for medication delivery, noting that the local pharmacy, with which Holly Hall had a prearranged emergency plan, couldn’t completely fulfill its responsibilities under its disaster plan.

Santa Fe Senior Living, which evacuated one of its 3 communities, will probably be less inclined to evacuate in the future, says President Troy Hart, citing the many variables that can make an evacuation more difficult than staying in place.

Hart says a good communication plan is absolutely essential: “We implemented a communication strategy and told everyone to check Facebook and our website twice a day for updates. We used a product called Quickcast, which allowed us to send updates by text, voice mail and email to anyone. Communication is colossally important. Even a communication saying, ‘nothing is happening’ is really appreciated.”

Troy says it’s important to re-evaluate relationships with contract providers, because during an emergency, everybody will need fuel and water, and agreements can’t always be met.

More Information and Disaster Preparation

LeadingAge offers a user-friendly list of resources and links for preparing for disasters. See “Disaster Resources: Preparedness, Response and Recovery” for details.

See “HUD Responds to Recent Disasters” on the LeadingAge website for information on how HUD supported recovery efforts.

Enterprise Community Partners has developed “Ready to Respond: Disaster Staffing,” a toolkit specifically for multifamily housing providers.

See “Mutual Aid Plans: Helping Each Other When Disaster Strikes,” to learn about how state associations and their members can prepare for emergencies and natural disasters.

Gene Mitchell is editor of LeadingAge magazine. Thanks to Nancy Hooks, LeadingAge’s vice president of state partnerships, for the reporting from Puerto Rico and California.