Despite meticulous planning, the disaster of Harvey reminds us that not everything is within our control

Like many of you, I have been watching television with concern, disbelief and sorrow as Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana. The flooding rains of Harvey were historic and remind us of the power of nature and our innate vulnerability as humans. 

One photo, in particular, pulled at my heartstrings, as it showed residents of a Texas nursing home sitting in water up to their waist. The photo was sent by the home’s administrator in an apparent – and ultimately successful – plea for help. Soon after the photo was posted, emergency high-water vehicles and personnel arrived to evacuate the residents, and a few days after the original photo went viral another one emerged showing the relocated residents safe and warm in a temporary setting.

Some good news in a sea of despair.

Unfortunately, the work of rebuilding is just getting started. And while the residents of this nursing home were safely evacuated, the question remains whether or not they’ll ever be able to return to their home. Even more unfortunately they are just a mere representation of the multitude of facilities and communities that were inundated with flood waters.

The work of rebuilding, clothing and reequipping will be expensive. As a way of assisting our brethren in Texas, our national member association, LeadingAge, has developed this donation link to assist members adversely affected by Harvey’s impact. One hundred percent of the donations go to the affected aging services organizations. Please consider giving.

Some might be asking, how does an aging services provider prepare for disasters like Harvey?  In short, we do all we can to anticipate and plan for crisis situations. While we plan and drill annually, even the best plans can be deviled with flaws in the wake of an event like Harvey.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) requires all long-term care facilities to have disaster preparedness plans in place, including evacuation and relocation plans.

Our Well•Spring, Life Plan Community has reciprocal plans with The Village at Brookwood, which we manage in Burlington, as well as other communities in the state, to house residents in times of natural disaster or extended power outages. Everything from utilities to food are required to be covered in a disaster plan. Skilled nursing facilities are required to have emergency generator backup power as part of the disaster planning scenario – but what happens if flood waters rise to the level of the generator?

Well, we know what happens, and scenarios like this are playing out in Texas right now, where residents are being evacuated despite having what they thought was a reliable power source.

It’s not just utilities that come into play, either. Consider the staff at these facilities. They have their own personal worries, combined with their care, concern and love for residents. In cases like Harvey, a community or facility may in fact escape the flood waters only to be cut off from staff getting to work due to flooded streets and personal homes. This can make for a terrible situation where the staff that was on duty at the facility when the storm hit are suddenly alone, with little relief from their caregiving duties … which must be fulfilled, regardless of the weather.

Providers make contingency plans for this situation, but most of the time it’s for a short timeframe. I’m afraid the timeframe is getting elongated in Texas.

Believe it or not, I’ve just outlined the best-case scenario for older adults. The worst case is the older adult who does not have the support of a facility or retirement community, most likely lives alone or provides care for a frail spouse. These individuals have no disaster plan, no backup power source and no help! They are at the mercy of rescue workers and the storm. All too often it is this group of older adults who we later learn have been swept away in flood waters or perished in their flooded home.

It is, however, so gratifying to see the people of Texas (and the nation) coming together to assist their fellow citizens. Thank God for the emergency personnel, Texas National Guard and countless volunteers who risked their own lives and left their own families to do what they could to mitigate the loss of life from a force of nature like Harvey.

In a world where control seems to be as close as the app on your phone, Harvey is a reminder that it’s not the case. Plan – and plan some more – for times you cannot control.

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