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Florida nursing homes evacuated thousands for Ian. Some weathered the storm

Tropical Weather Florida
Orange County Fire Rescue's Public Information Office
This image provided by Orange County Fire Rescue's Public Information Office rescue crews work quickly to safely evacuate Avante at Orlando nursing home residents on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022 in Orlando, Fla. Officials say rain and overflow from rivers is causing severe flooding near parts of Florida’s Atlantic coast as storm Ian makes its way back out to sea.

Some required rescues, while others hunkered down while depending on generator power as crews sort through the damage.

Stay, or go?

That was the question facing the hundreds of Florida nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Hurricane Ian's path this week. Moving elderly residents can cause "transfer trauma," with the stress of relocation sometimes leading to deterioration. But staying put during a powerful hurricane comes with obvious risks to health and safety.

As Ian wreaked havoc on the Southeast, NPR reached out to two dozen Florida nursing homes in Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties, where the storm made landfall Thursday. Most could not be reached or declined to comment, but some shared updates.

"In 42 years, we've never evacuated," says an employee at Calusa Harbour in Fort Myers. The employee was not authorized to speak to the media and therefore asked not to be named.

But that changed for Hurricane Ian, which struck on the cusp of Category 5 winds. More than 60 deaths related to the storm have been confirmed as of Monday and search-and-rescue missions were ongoing, officials said.

Calusa Harbour moved its assisted living residents to an affiliated facility an hour to the south.

More than 40 nursing homes made the same choice and evacuated around 3,400 residents before the storm set in, according to the Florida Health Care Association, a trade organization. Most were located in the southwest part of the state and transferred residents to affiliated facilities outside the storm's path.

At least another 115 assisted living facilities also evacuated residents.

Others chose to ride it out.

"We stayed and we endured through it," says Tameka Miller, who works at the Port Charlotte Rehabilitation Center in Charlotte County. Staff embedded with residents, and some family members also came to ride out the storm with loved ones.

"We had a little mishaps, but everything is OK. We are running off a generator and we are running normally," Miller said Friday.

Flooding in unexpected places led to rescues

As Ian dumped more than a foot of water on parts of the state, five more nursing homes with hundreds of residents reported being forced to leave as floodwaters rose, some well outside evacuation zones, according to the FHCA.

In Central Florida and the eastern coast, "the water rose so quickly because they took on so much rain that they had to leave," spokesperson Kristen Knapp says.

Orange County Fire Rescue reported evacuating the Avante at Orlando, and The Bridge and Life Care Center of Orlando facilities. Videos show rescue workers ferrying residents in wheelchairs and gurneys to waiting buses.

A person who answered the phone at Avante at Orlando declined to comment and gave a number to a corporate office mailbox that was full.

The Bridge also did not pick up. A person who answered the phone at the Life Care Center at Orlando said 122 people were moved to an affiliated facility in Altamonte Springs.

"We are grateful for the compassion and professionalism displayed by our staff during and after the hurricane, as they've focused on ensuring our residents stay calm and comfortable," Life Care Centers of America CEO Joe Jicha said in a statement.

Florida law requires assisted living and nursing homes to have backup power and four days’ worth of generator fuel on hand after more than a dozen people died in a South Florida facility following Hurricane Irma due to lack of air conditioning.

As many as 20 facilities had reported electricity outages, but Knapp says generators are powering those buildings. Water was shut off at some facilities, too. Knapp said utility companies had been checking on and prioritizing these buildings for reconnection.

Christina Webb, with the front desk staff at Coral Trace Health Care in Cape Coral, said her facility rode out the storm. Power was out but generators were working fine.

"The only thing we had was some damage from trees falling, but people are out there picking them up now," Webb said.

About 600,000 homes and businesses in Florida were still without electricity on Monday morning, down from a peak of 2.6 million.

"[We're] just taking it day-by-day right now," says Webb.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.