After Hurricane Irma devastated Florida, around 160 nursing homes were still without power several days later. The heat, endured without air conditioning, took its toll on nursing home patients, with 11 deaths reported in Irma’s wake. It has come to light that many nursing homes across the United States are, to put it mildly, unprepared for disasters.
Shortly after the deaths occurred in Hollywood, Florida, SC Rep. Wendell Gilliard decided to shine a light on the preparedness of our own state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities. He accomplished this by sending a letter dated September 14, 2017 to the acting director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). In it, Rep. Gilliard asked, “In the wake of what happened in Florida, would you please inform me of our state’s policies and guidelines specific to the usage of power generators when a normal power outage occurs?”
David Wilson, the acting director of DHEC, communicated that, in light of the events in Florida, SC’s storm preparations were under review. During Irma, using a computer application developed after the lessons of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, DHEC staff collected information regarding the locations to which nursing home patients were being evacuated, the details of their transport, and whether the facilities had enough water, food, and other supplies on hand to both move and care for patients. In the cases of four locations where phone calls did not reach anyone, emergency personnel were dispatched to check that all persons had been evacuated from the buildings.
Wilson wrote back to Gilliard, “In some cases, we assisted the facilities in securing ambulances to transport patients. If the need arose, we were prepared to help find locations to which patients and residents could evacuate. Had the storm continued on a direct path towards South Carolina, we were prepared to bring in FEMA ambulances to help with the evacuation.”
In a message dated the same day as Gilliard’s letter, the chief of DHEC’s Bureau of Health Facilities Licensing, Gwen Thompson, had strong words for the administrators of health care facilities regarding threats posed by extreme weather. Thompson reminded administrators to prepare for electrical grid failures when dangerous storms hit, and that they are required to contact DHEC immediately should they lose power, lose cooling or heating, or have no potable water.
In the days immediately preceding Irma as the storm’s impact was assessed, SC Governor Henry McMaster rescinded the evacuation order for over 140 facilities on the coast. When Irma shifted west, McMaster ordered eight barrier islands to evacuate and for facilities in Beaufort, Colleton, and Jasper counties to move patients in anticipation of the record storm surge.
It appears that we dodged a bullet in SC with Irma. Only when future storms strike will we know whether our state truly has the right systems in place to protect the vulnerable. As Rep. Gilliard noted, “We need to go a little further, we need to know what we’re going to do with all the facilities in South Carolina.”