ORLANDO, Fla. – Hurricane Irma led to major changes in Florida law after more than a dozen patients died after staying in a sweltering South Florida nursing home that had no power for several days.
The new law requires nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have a working generator and at least three days of fuel. It needs to be able to keep a common area cool, and that area has to be able to accommodate all patients.
But according to Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration, the final rules do allow extensions until Jan. 1, 2019, as long as patient protections are in place to ensure safe temperatures at all times.
"If a facility has not documented compliance with the June 1 deadline the agency will issue a notice of violation, which can lead to fines and other penalties," said Mallory McManus, communications director for AHCA. "After June 1, the agency will begin conducting site visits to facilities that have an implemented plan, but have not yet had an inspection. The agency will also continue working with facilities to bring them into compliance."
McManus confirms before a facility can be approved for an extension, it has to provide a detailed description of its plans to meet these patient protection rules during the extension time frame. The details included what cooling devices the facility will use, how those will be powered and evacuation plans if needed.
Lana Watts is the administrator and owner of Queen Elaine Assisted Living Facility in Casselberry. Her center serves up to six patients and is housed in a home in a quiet neighborhood. It is one of the more than 3,000 facilities that submitted and executed an emergency power plan and had it approved.
"The residents are trusting us to take care of them. The families are trusting us to take care of them, so we want to provide that level of care that should be a standard of care, a best practice," Watts said. "In the event of a hurricane, we want to keep the place cooled because we don't want our elderly to experience heat exhaustion or dehydration."
Watts says last year, the six residents had to evacuate the facility and came to stay at her home after Hurricane Irma knocked the power out.
"We had the power outages for almost eight days," Watts said.
Even though the Queen Elaine Facility did have a portable generator, Watts says they ran out of fuel and there was a run on gas since several gas stations were without power too.
Now that the new law is in place, Watts has installed a new permanent generator outside with direct access to the natural gas line.
"So here the entire house will be cooled," Watts said.
However, she admits not all facilities can afford to do that.
"The minimum cost was about $10,000 between the generator, electrician, the permits, etc." Watts said.
We checked with several facilities on Seminole County's list that had either failed to submit a power plan, or were denied by the county. We discovered many were up for either sale or empty.
Watts says she's not surprised, since implementing emergency plans take a lot of work and time.
"It literally took me from September to February to have the generator fully in place and functional," Watts said.
Seminole County Emergency Management Director Alan Harris said during Hurricane Irma, they initiated their emergency management plan and forced many nursing homes and assisted living facilities to evacuate.
"And when we got to those facilities, we found individuals in there with temperatures up to 100 degrees," Harris said.
That's why he hopes the state will rigorously enforce the new law.
"We do not want to see any more pictures of people dying like in Ft. Lauderdale or in floodwaters like Hurricane Harvey," Harris said. "And we certainly don't want people being left in facilities like in Hurricane Katrina. We've seen enough of the pictures across the country -- we don't want it happening here."
Harris said he will have his emergency management team go and check on facilities by calling and making visits, regardless of what the state does, to make sure no one is left in sweltering or unsafe conditions should any hurricane hit this year.
But what about those elderly loved ones who don't live in a nursing home or assisted living facility, or don't have friends or family living nearby? Where can they turn to get help?
Harris says senior citizens who are living alone at home should sign up for the special needs registry in the county they live in. Friends or family members can also sign up a loved one. That way, someone with the county can call and check up on them during a hurricane, and transport them to a facility should they need emergency services.
"We now have it online, so you can actually go online and register so you don't even have to fill out the paperwork," Harris said.
Harris and other emergency management directors encourage people not to wait until a hurricane hits to formulate their plan. You can contact any county emergency management office for help on how to put a plan in place but they encourage having enough medications on hand, important papers kept in a waterproof container, and a plan for what you need to do with your pets should you need to evacuate.
To check on nursing homes and assisted living facilities in your area, go to floridahealthfinder.gov/index.html.
The FloridaHealthFinder.gov website now has facility generator information on the facility profile pages.