Caregivers swap storm tips

Published May 23, 2007

ST. PETE BEACH - When Hurricane Katrina clobbered the Mississippi coast, the Delta Health Group nursing home company figured it had prepared well.

Its four homes on high ground near Pass Christian had installed private generators and stocked up on extra food, water and medicine, said president Scott Bell.

But they forgot one thing: scary men with rifles.

In hurricanes, security becomes a top priority, right up there with transportation and power, Bell told industry colleagues who met this week at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa to learn about disasters.

The hurricane summit, now in its second year, helps nursing homes in gulf states learn from one another's harsh experiences.

They are driven by a sobering Katrina statistic: 71 percent of the people who died in New Orleans were older than 60. More than half were older than 75.

As Bell pointed out, Pass Christian "ceased to exist" after Katrina. "There was a 20-foot storm surge. The buildings were gone. There wasn't a steeple standing, or school or city hall. It was all gone."

With the nation's attention focused on New Orleans, four days passed before help arrived. Hungry, homeless, dehydrated survivors wandered through the debris, Bell said, and nursing homes with self-generated power "stuck out like a sore thumb."

The homes had 10 days' worth of food and fed the first few outsiders who asked for help. Then word spread, and swelling crowds grew aggressive.

With the Mississippi National Guard too overwhelmed to help, Bell hired eight guards from a private Memphis security firm. He described them as "beastly men, " dressed in ninja black, carrying multiple guns.

In a few days, they turned away two armed robbers who demanded food and drugs and a shotgun-toting husband who demanded his wife's paycheck.

Nursing home residents are fragile by nature. Add to that employees who can't or don't get to work; vendors who normally supply ice, medicine and oxygen who may not show up; and communication with the outside world that falters.

Four or five days around Katrina, land-line telephones at Louisiana's state Emergency Operations Center worked only about 35 percent of the time, and cell phones were useless, said Medicare/Medicaid regulator Tom Scheidel, who helped staff the emergency center.

At one point, Scheidel heard what turned out to be a terrifying but false rumor: Two doctors and four nurses had fled to the roof of a New Orleans hospital because gangs looking for drugs were trying to rob them.

"I turned to the state police representative and said, 'Do you have somebody available?' and he said, 'I have plenty of people available, but no way to get hold of them.' "

Even satellite telephones stopped working when too many people tried to use them at once, Scheidel said.

"You are going to have to rely a lot on ham radio operators."

Buses for evacuating homes can be scarce, said Ken Presley, a vice president with the United Motorcoach Association.

Texas recently contracted with tour bus companies for 1, 100 buses in emergencies. "Now nursing homes cannot get contracts with bus companies because the state has them all tied up, " Presley said.

Robert Watson, another bus company representative, suggested that the nursing home industry buy up old municipal transit buses that go out of service after about 10 years.

"There is no aftermarket. You can buy these for $800 to $1, 000, " Watson said. Tour bus companies would maintain and store the buses until crunch time.

Drivers might be scarcer than buses, said Brian Scott of Largo's Escot Bus Lines. They need to tend to their homes and families and may not be available for nursing home evacuations.

Tracy Greene, administrator of Bayshore Pointe Nursing & Rehab Center in Tampa, would be prepared.

While working at a home in the Florida Keys, she took classes and got a bus driver's license, for just such contingencies. "It's just as easy as driving an SUV. You can see so well, " Greene said. "It's better than feeling helpless."