How Nursing Homes Coped amid the Hurricane Chaos

Article excerpt

It is said that disasters bring out the best in people, and Hurricane Katrina did just that for most workers in the longterm care field. When the storm bore down on the Gulf Coast in late August, providers lent a helping hand to residents and colleagues in need.

Providers took in evacuees from other states; worked around the clock to care for their residents; and offered tons of food, supplies and assistance.

Some efforts can only be described as heroic: At least one executive director stayed up all night working on the evacuation of his residents-and then went to the airport to care for dying residents. An untold number of nurses and assistants worked tirelessly during the storm knowing they might return to homes that no longer existed.


Conversely, few can recall the nation's worst natural disaster and not be reminded of St. Rita's, the now-infamous St. Bernard Parish nursing home where 34 residents perished because they were not evacuated. Although details of the situation are still forthcoming, in many ways it has come to symbolize what went wrong with hurricane emergency procedures in general. Providers and officials are among those pondering: What happened to the communications system? Why didn't more homes evacuate? And why weren't better emergency procedures in place?

Elders were among Katrina's most defenseless victims. Between 85 and ioo residents died in Louisiana nursing homes during the hurricane and its aftermath, according to Joe Donchess, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association. Hundreds of others-many elderly-died in hospitals, residences or out in the open.

Nursing homes were required to have their own evacuation plans, including contracts with transportation companies. Some nursing homes that chose not to evacuate faced perils of catastrophic proportions: rising waters, lack of food and supplies, even violence. In one of the darkest moments, Covenant Home in New Orleans evacuated after its bus driver was forced to surrender the vehicle to gun-wielding carjackers. As a result, 80 residents were transported to other nursing homes in the state. "We had excellent plans. We had enough food for 10 days," said Peggy Hoffman, the facility's executive director. "Now we'll have to equip our department heads with guns and teach them how to shoot," she said.


Even during the chaos, there were shining moments. "Nursing homes made Herculean efforts," Donchess said, adding that if staff had not worked 14 hours a day, four days straight, then "there would have been many more lives lost." The association executive coordinated rescue efforts from the emergency operations center in Baton Rouge. Stories of heroism gush from him. For instance, Irvin Boudreaux, a family member of an employee at Lavon Nursing Home, drove his pickup truck through high water to get to the facility. Boudreaux then rented two buses and rescued 50 residents, stopping only when random gunshots forced military personnel to turn him away during a second trip.

Many homes rallied to each other's aid. Associations received offers from homes all over the country to house storm evacuees. For example, 400 residents from the Air Force Village in GuIf'port, Miss., ended up at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C., without injuries or fatalities. Hundreds of others relocated in the Southeast and beyond.

During the crisis, many nursing home staffs continued to work, knowing their own lives might be at risk. One Chateau de Notre Dame nursing assistant made the 79-mile trip to safety with residents before the storm, leaving her nine-month-old daughter in New Orleans with her sister. She drew tears from other workers when she sang a gospel song to conclude a prayer service. "She knew her home was probably gone, but she didn't know anything about her baby," observed a colleague.

Facilities across the country continue to offer beds and space to those who need them-without regard for government funding. …