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Making The Most Vulnerable A Recovery Priority


Thousands of the Big Bend’s most vulnerable seniors relied on a network of volunteer and professional care givers – and sometimes each other -- to weather Hurricane Hermine. Some of the planning worked, some didn’t.

Westminster Oaks retirement community resident Barbara Johnson is the no nonsense chair of the emergency preparations committee.

When Hurricane Hermine knocked out the lights, and then the switchboard, Johnson’s network of block captains kept most of the community’s nearly 700 residents calm and informed.

“I talked to a lot of daughters or other family members, relatives of residents, who were very concerned. We had no idea when the power would come back on and they were trying to make judgments about what they would do about a loved one.”

Some residents baby sat so staff members could work around the clock.  Westminster executive director Don Wilson said sheltering in place instead of evacuating was the right choice.

“You don’t just load them up and take them somewhere in Tallahassee. Where would we put them? That would have overloaded the system. And it really didn’t make sense to drive them to Gainesville or anything and bring in massive buses.”

Officials say sheltering in place worked for Big Bend nursing care facilities, at least to the extent that there were no storm related deaths or injuries.

But Florida Health Care Association executive director Emmett Reed says the Big Bend disaster recovery plan has a big gap. By Sunday, four area elder care facilities were still waiting to have their power restored.

“As we were going into several days with facilities that were running on generator power, we were really one generator malfunction away from potential human tragedy.”

LeadingAge CEO Steve Bahamer, an advocate for Westminster and other non-profits,  doesn’t call disaster response in the Big Bend an unqualified success, either.

“How do we insure that the most vulnerable in Tallahassee, those seniors who rely on power for essential medical care, on high on the list of priorities in the event that something like this happens again?”

Westminster administrators who were on site say nobody from the governor’s office, the county or the mayor’s office called to check their status.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum blames a communication breakdown. He says he was satisfied Westminster survived after he met Sunday with Reed.

“They are considered a vulnerable population and they were priority. I was told that they had generation that was keeping them going until the lines could be successfully restored there.”

But Reed says if Tallahassee elder care facilities were priority, then officials need to work on their definition. He says utilities in Southwest Florida were able to respond to centers there much quicker in Hermine’s wake.

“Again, I don’t believe it was done intentionally. I think that this was just a systemic issue that we’re going to have to look at globally and make improvements.”

Department of Elder Affairs spokeswoman Ashley Chambers says some seniors were more than inconvenienced by the loss of power.

“It’s not just people complaining because they can’t watch the football game. You know these people need power to provide electricity for their oxygen machine. For their nebulizers. We had someone with severe asthma who could not use their nebulizer for five days.”

Gillum says he expects soon to begin a thorough review of disaster response.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.