By Marcia Neitman, regional director of business development
On Sept. 9, 2017, at 5:30 a.m., the National Weather Bureau bulletin indicated the storm path of Hurricane Irma had changed course.
The entire state of Florida was under storm alert watching the hurricane’s path. Throughout the week, all indications had the eye of the storm headed for the east coast until that day, the hurricane had shifted and was headed to the west coast with a storm surge that could be up to 10 feet in Punta Gorda.
There are 2,300 residents living in skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities in Charlotte County. The Agency for Health Care Administration mandates that each SNF and ALF have an evacuation plan based for their own facility. Hurricane Irma posed a serious problem; not all the SNFs and ALFs can be expected to evacuate at the same time.
It was not feasible to move residents out of Charlotte County because the path of the storm was heading up through the entire state. As a result of the hurricane conditions that were mounting all week, fuel shortages quickly became an issue. It was not possible to travel through the state without refueling and becoming stranded.
When winds reach 45 mph, ambulances are not permitted on the road. The Fire and EMS department had little time to orchestrate the transportation and plan to evacuate the 2,300 vulnerable residents.
Charlotte County identified every transit and school bus it could find, and emergency meetings were held with the property appraisers to determine the highest-risk facilities in the county to move the most vulnerable residents.
Life Care Center of Punta Gorda and Consulate Health Care of Port Charlotte were relocated to Kings Gate Country Club. Two entire facilities full of patients, staff members, their families and pets took up residency in a space a fraction of the size they were used to living and administering nursing care in. This was their home for the next 48 hours during the storm and until it was safe to return to their facilities.
Life Care Center of Punta Gorda held an appreciation breakfast on Oct. 20 for the first responders of the Charlotte County and the City of Punta Gorda Fire and EMS departments for their selfless efforts to facilitate the safe evacuation of more than 250 people, including patients on stretchers, wheelchairs with equipment, bedding, supplies, Life Care associates and their family members.
Beecher Hunter, president of Life Care Centers of America, acknowledged the first responders for their service in a personal letter.
“Without your presence and professionalism, our experience during Hurricane Irma would have been drastically different,” Hunter said. “Thank you for what you did for Life Care Center of Punta Gorda and what you do for your community every day.”
Copies of Hunter’s letter were framed and personally addressed to the Chief of Charlotte County Fire and EMS, Bill Van Helden, and Chief of the Punta Gorda Fire and EMS, Ray Briggs. Briggs accepted the letter in person, and Chief Deputy Michael Davis accepted the letter on behalf of Van Helden.