MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — With less than 48 hours before Hurricane Florence was forecast to reach shore, officials in the Carolinas were still pleading for residents to evacuate communities in the storm’s path. But at the Eagle Crest senior living community near the shore here Wednesday, the windows had long been boarded up and a sign was already hung on the front door announcing that nobody was there.
Preparations to evacuate the facility’s residents had begun late last week, days before South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) issued mandatory evacuation orders.
Many residents were picked up by relatives, while others were moved to a sister facility in Columbia, S.C., said Lee Young, vice president of operations for the facility’s parent company, Holiday Retirement.
“As soon as we get any type of notice,” he said, “we start contacting families.”
Many nursing-home and elder-care institutions throughout the Carolinas closed and evacuated their residents in advance of Florence, worried about a repeat of last year’s deaths of elderly residents after Hurricane Irma struck Florida.
In Houston, 20 elderly residents had to be rescued from waist-deep water in their nursing home after Hurricane Harvey dumped record amounts of rain on the region. When Irma struck Florida a week later, widespread power outages were blamed for the deaths of a dozen residents in a Hollywood nursing home. Without air conditioning in the sweltering weather, residents’ body temperatures rose high enough to tip the elderly and ill over the life-or-death line.
And on Florida’s Gulf Coast, an assisted-care facility for people with dementia narrowly escaped a similar fate when its power was out for three days.
Young said that Holiday Retirement — which owns Eagle Crest and several other facilities along the southeastern coast, from Savannah, Ga., to the Chesapeake Bay — is at an advantage because its facilities have been in the path of major storms many times in the past. The company had stored about 500 cots and other necessities, such as blankets and pillows, ready to be delivered at a moment’s notice to inland facilities that will house additional residents.
“Let’s face it — this can be a fragile population. They’re our responsibility,” he said. “As they move in with us and seek to experience a better life, we want to make sure that when things are at their worst, that they’re taken care of.”
While officials at many senior-care facilities in Myrtle Beach and Wilmington, N.C., had boarded up their facilities by Wednesday after a week of preparation, others said they were confident that their planning was adequate to keep their facilities in operation, saying they have taken every precaution to safeguard residents, employees and, often, their families.
“We are taking this completely seriously,” said Ted W. Goins Jr., president of Lutheran Services Carolinas, whose seven facilities are staying open during the hurricane. One-hundred residents and 183 employees — along with family members — planned to hunker down at the seven-year-old Trinity Grove nursing home in Wilmington.
The building, constructed on high ground and with a massive 750-kilowatt diesel generator that can provide power for at least three days, is stuffed with food, water, medications and medical supplies, Goins said. His diesel supplier promised to appear with more fuel when the supply is half used, he said.
North and South Carolina’s state governments said it is up to individually operated nursing homes outside of mandatory evacuation zones to decide whether to move their medically fragile patients.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that it has shared with all Medicare-certified nursing homes the steps to get a federal waiver allowing them leeway with certain federal regulations for emergency situations.
In Wilmington, New Hanover County officials said they had contacted every individual who has registered on its special-needs list — people who need oxygen to breathe or are confined to beds — to make sure they have a safe place to stay during the storm, in some cases finding them temporary shelter. The local adult-services department and the Area Agency on Aging has been in touch with each senior facilities as well, county public information officer Kathryn Murphy said, and has helped them decide whether and how to plan for the hurricane.
Multiple nursing homes in Wilmington surround the New Hanover Regional Medical Center, where the parking lot was full Wednesday. But up and down nearby streets, homes and services for the elderly were closed and their parking lots were empty, much like the many medical offices in the neighborhood.
“Everyone’s been evacuated,” said the maintenance supervisor at Cypress Pointe Rehabilitation Center, where plywood covered scores of windows. A few people remained in the office but the administration was too busy with phone calls to talk, he said. Hours later, calls to the facility remained unanswered.
Sullivan reported from Wilmington.