Mayor Jerry Wade of Shepherd, Tex., said he was almost driven to tears last Friday when he spotted several dozen elderly Hurricane Katrina evacuees in his town, sitting on a broken bus that had been headed to Houston.
Some were traveling with wheelchairs, others with walkers. Some wore oxygen masks, Wade said. "It was just a pitiful-looking sight," he said. "It was about 98 degrees outside, and they looked very sick from the heat. We didn't think some of them were going to make it" to Houston.
Turns out, these residents of a New Orleans assisted-living home -- managed by McLean-based Sunrise Senior Living Inc. -- were among the more fortunate of Katrina evacuees. A day before the storm struck Aug. 29, the company had evacuated them to a comfy golf resort, far inland, then made arrangements to send them to Sunrise facilities in Houston and beyond.
The odyssey of the Sunrise at Bayou St. John community -- 51 residents were evacuated and 34 were picked up by family members before the storm arrived -- underscores how emergency planning by a national company and a bit of money -- the Sunrise residents pay an average of $100 a day -- went a long way toward smoothing the resettlement.
"I don't want to sound like a salesman for Sunrise," said Karl Harvey, a Connecticut software engineer whose 85-year-old mother, Ruth, was evacuated from the New Orleans home, "but I think their care of my mom was beyond description, as far as excellence goes."
The evacuation from leafy Bayou St. John stands in stark contrast to the grim stories of elderly Louisianians, some in nursing homes that were never evacuated, who died in the storm or were left homeless.
It also contrasts with what Virginia inspectors said was inadequate care at some facilities in the state in recent years, problems Sunrise officials say they have corrected. The publicly traded company, which grew from a single facility in Oakton in 1981 to a chain of 420 communities, reported profit of $50.7 million and revenue of $1.46 billion last year.
To Karl Harvey, the bus breakdown in Texas was an unforeseen but quickly resolved emergency.
"The ease with which my mom was able to transfer to Houston and then transfer to a Sunrise home in Hartford was excellent," he said.
An Alzheimer's patient, Ruth Harvey had moved two years earlier to Bayou St. John, which offered what one Sunrise official called a "mansion" lifestyle in a Victorian-style house near Lake Pontchartrain.
Sunrise officials say their disaster-planning included making deals with charter bus companies and hotels before hurricane season began and deciding two days before the storm made landfall to evacuate residents of the New Orleans and Slidell, La., facilities.
"Anything that meant something to [the residents], we made sure we got it packed for them," said Sherry Robinson, who coordinates Sunrise's operations in Louisiana. "They brought clothing and their medications for a couple of weeks. They also brought pictures."
Sunrise offered its staffers round-the-clock pay as an incentive to accompany the residents, Robinson said.
On Aug. 28, residents and staffers from Slidell were taken to a hotel in Natchez, Miss. The Bayou St. John group was bused to the Emerald Hills Golf Resort in west-central Louisiana.
This group, which included Ruth Harvey, spent five nights there, then headed in two buses toward Houston. Sixty miles from Houston, one of the buses broke down.
Police in Shepherd (population: 2,050) transported the elderly passengers and 20 staffers to a restaurant.
"We're just a little, small town. We don't have no facilities for putting a lot of people up," said Wade, the city's mayor. "But we have a combination Shell station and restaurant. So we evacuated them to the Shell station, where our fire department . . . got them plenty to drink.
"Then one of our city councilmen, who owns a mechanics shop, got some of his mechanics and took some parts off the broken bus. I went into town, found new parts and bought them. And we got the bus running."
Sunrise officials said Wade and the council member repaired the bus at no charge.
Karl Harvey said he was in Houston, waiting to greet his mother, when the bus pulled in last Friday night. They flew to Connecticut, and Ruth Harvey settled into a Sunrise facility in West Hartford.
It is far from certain whether the former Bayou St. John residents will ever return to their home. Harvey has told his mother she will remain in Connecticut for two months.
"And probably longer," he said.