Hurricane Irma forces local retirement communities to set up shop elsewhere


A photo of nursing home residents trapped in floodwaters in Dickinson, Texas, during Hurricane Harvey and the tragic deaths of nine patients at a nursing home in Hollywood, Florida, during Hurricane Irma raise questions about how retirement communities respond when a natural disaster strikes. The Recorder checked in with a few local facilities to see how they addressed Irma.   


The Palms at Ponte Vedra

 The Palms at Ponte Vedra evacuated its assisted living, retirement and memory care residents to the Crowne Plaza hotel near the Jacksonville International Airport—a safe haven that required significant preliminary work and a little bit of luck to secure.

Executive Director Barbara Matteson explained that the evacuation process first began with reviewing the facility’s 100-page evacuation plan, which outlines each of the preliminary objectives that must be completed.

At the top of the list, she said her staff had to find a hotel with available rooms and a generator that was large enough to power the elevators and air conditioners in the case of a power outage. In addition, Matteson explained that the Palms had to contract a charter bus to transport the residents. As those arrangements were being made, Director of Sales and Marketing Kay Tober and the facility’s staff were in consistent communication with the residents’ families to make them aware of the plans for their loved ones.

Leading up to the evacuation, Culinary Director Darryl Young explained that he was responsible for organizing the emergency supply kit, which consisted of a three-day supply of breakfast, lunch and dinner meals, as well as snacks, beverages and water. He also had to ensure they would continue to accommodate for the special diets of their residents, as well as be able to prepare food in the case of a power outage. This required close coordination with the hotel staff to ensure menus aligned with the Palms’ guidelines during the evacuation, Young noted.

As for the residents’ arrival to the hotel, Matteson said the Palms originally planned to get there the Sunday before Irma, until St. Johns County officials called her Friday and told her they had to leave Saturday. The facility’s executive director consequently called the Crowne Plaza to see if they could bump up their arrival, and to their good fortune, reservations for several rooms had just been cancelled, allowing the Palms to change their plans.

“By the grace of god, we had rooms after all,” said Matteson.

Once the residents arrived at the hotel, they moved into their assigned rooms, with husbands of nurses and housekeepers helping them move their luggage.

During the residents’ stay, Matteson said staff worked 12-hour shifts, but many worked around the clock to care for the residents.

“I learned that the housekeepers and the culinary department are the best caregivers we may have,” she said amusingly. “Our nurses…they didn’t sleep. Our dishwasher…he was outstanding. He called bingo.”

The facility’s activities director ensured that it was “business as usual” for the residents, maintaining a schedule of diversions and activities that was almost identical to what they experience in Ponte Vedra on a daily basis.

Throughout the evacuation, Tober was responsible for continued communication with the residents’ families via email, Facebook and phone calls.

“I think that gave them peace of mind,” said Tober.

Before they knew it, the storm had passed, and it was time to return back to Ponte Vedra. After wrapping up the residents’ first dinner back home, Young said he jumped into his car, and the realization of what they had just accomplished hit him.

“Caregiver was above any title,” he said. “Long hours on us, but it was a good feeling. We did the right thing. We did good.”


Vicar’s Landing

 Residents of Vicar’s Landing’s independent living facilities evacuated to a hotel in Atlanta, while the community’s health care residents ultimately evacuated twice, first to Camp Weed & Cerveny Conference Center in Live Oak, Florida, and then to the Glenmoor retirement community in World Golf Village when Hurricane Irma shifted west.

 LCPS Management CEO Bruce Jones, who oversees Vicar’s, said the evacuation process is based on an evacuation plan that is reviewed at the beginning of every hurricane season.

 As for the independent living residents, Jones said Vicar’s contracted luxury coaches to transport them to Atlanta. He explained that his staff collected the residents’ luggage the evening before the evacuation and placed it on a box truck that arrived at the hotel before anyone else.

An advance team, he added, then travelled up to Atlanta to make necessary arrangements, including securing an individual dining space for the residents and delivering the luggage to each respective room. Once the residents arrived at the hotel, Jones said activities and excursions were already scheduled to ensure everyone was busy while they were away.

On the other hand, Jones explained that Vicar’s has a long-term agreement with the Episcopal Diocese of Florida to use Camp Weed & Cerveny Conference Center as an evacuation location for its health care residents. He said the facility in Live Oak is organized in a similar manner to their facilities in Ponte Vedra. He added that kitchen, dining and housekeeping staffs from Vicar’s travel with the residents to provide the necessary care.

“It’s set up hotel style so we take enough staff to have at least two shifts a day, if not three,” he said. “It’s quite a process, but it’s what we think is the right thing to do to make sure our residents are taken care of.”

This time around, however, the hurricane shifted its track, forcing the health care residents to evacuate back to St. Johns County and stay at Glenmoor, which is a sister community of Vicar’s. Jones said they were safely housed there for the duration of the storm.

Concerning other logistics during an evacuation, Jones added that Vicar’s sends its IT staff with its residents so that the organization can set up offices in each of its respective locations. This year, he said Irma struck during payroll so staff had to complete that remotely. In addition, Jones explained that Vicar’s allows staff to bring anyone living in their immediate home with them during the evacuation, which adds another element to the process.

“It’s just a big logistical project because we are really setting up an entire retirement community remotely for a short period of time,” he said.

Arbor Terrace

 Arbor Terrace of Ponte Vedra evacuated its memory loss residents to its San Jose branch on Dupont Avenue in Jacksonville.

“For the most part it was very smooth,” said Ann Terrell, a senior care counselor at the local assisted living facility. “All of our team members over there at San Jose worked really, really hard. 24 hours around the clock. We made it work.”

Terrell said experiencing Matthew last year helped the facility be more prepared for Irma. Leading up to this year’s storm, she said the Arbor Terrace staff met on a daily basis to discuss a checklist of what needed to be completed before the evacuation. She explained that each of the residents’ families brought in a suitcase and air mattress for their loved ones. Then, the Arbor Terrace staff organized three days worth of clothing, supplies and food to ensure everyone was taken care of during the storm.

Terrell said the Ponte Vedra branch borrowed vans from the Ortega and San Jose branches to evacuate the residents, which she said took approximately five to six hours the Saturday before Irma.

While the residents were away from Ponte Vedra, Terrell said staff worked hard to operate like it was any other day, with residents enjoying the same activities, entertainment and meals that they usually do in Ponte Vedra. Overall, Terrell said the evacuation required significant organization.

“It’s a big job evacuating everybody,” she said. “You’re combining two communities into one.

“Certainly we’re thanking them [our staff] profusely and rewarding them for doing such a great job in the hurricane. They worked 24 hours a day for many days. Our residents are back and happy and good to go. Back at home.”