Are Florida’s Nursing Homes Prepared For Hurricanes?
This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. Original reporting on this story by Caitie Switalski appeared on WLRN 91.3 in Miami and South Florida.
After Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas, Florida braced itself for a brutal start to hurricane season. The storm didn’t cause catastrophic damage to the state this time, but Florida is just beginning peak hurricane season—and its nursing homes, which care for over 70,000 people, may not be prepared.
After 12 people in a nursing home died from heat-related causes during Hurricane Irma in 2017, Florida passed a law requiring homes to have emergency generators. Two years later, nearly 60% of nursing homes still do not meet that standard.
Ira talks with Caitie Switalski, the Broward County Bureau reporter at WLRN in South Florida, about hurricane season and nursing home preparedness. Read Switalski’s original reporting on whether Florida’s nursing homes are prepared to lose power, the recent guidelines for hurricane preparedness in nursing homes, and arrests related to deaths in nursing homes in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
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Caitie Switalski is the Broward County Bureau Reporter at WLRN 91.3 (South Florida) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.
SPEAKER 1: Iowa Public Radio News.
IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. As hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas, Florida braced itself for a brutal start to the hurricane season. Of course, good news. The storm did not end up causing catastrophic damage to the state. But for the next month, it’s peak hurricane season. And Florida’s nursing homes, which care for over 70,000 people, may not be prepared.
Caitie Switalski is the Broward County Bureau reporter at WLRN in South Florida. She has been covering the hurricane season. She’s here to fill us in. Welcome to Science Friday, Caitie.
CAITIE SWITALSKI: Hi, Ira. Thanks.
IRA FLATOW: So how are the nursing homes in Florida supposed to be prepared for the hurricane?
CAITIE SWITALSKI: They’re supposed to be able to have enough fuel for a generator, and a generator that can power the facility for 96 hours after a state of emergency is declared and after a storm passes. That means they have to be able to keep the inside of a nursing home or an assisted living facility at or no higher than 81 degrees inside Fahrenheit.
IRA FLATOW: And how many nursing facilities actually meet that standard now?
CAITIE SWITALSKI: Well, that’s a loaded question. And I think the loaded question of preparation is sort of wise on the state of Florida for not heavily enforcing timelines for when this needs to all be done. So you have most of the nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the state have needed time extensions to get this done. And over the next several years to get everybody up to speed, it’s going to cost roughly $120 million, regulators are estimating. So there’s a good chunk of them that are prepared now, but they’re certainly more than 70 nursing homes and assisted living facilities that didn’t feel safe enough for hurricane Dorian. And they evacuated.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm, all right, so that’s their plan now, is we’ll evacuate instead of upgrade.
CAITIE SWITALSKI: Yeah. For the time being, until they can. And now to get a time extension, you have to have some sort of temporary generator in place. But that’s not the same as having these heavy duty, large generators with enough space to store fuel for them, to keep AC on. And in Florida, when it comes to hurricane season, if the power goes out, that means your AC goes out. And that is life threatening.
IRA FLATOW: You know, it would just seem obvious that it’s going to cost more in the long run not to back off, not to have a generating system, because you’re going to be doing multiple evacuations over the years
CAITIE SWITALSKI: Well, especially with stronger storms, more frequent storms, and slower storms, like we saw with Dorian sitting and hovering right next to us and battering the Bahamas for two days.
IRA FLATOW: You know, you would think this would be a big political issue. Seniors are consistent voters. The children of the people in nursing homes also vote. Has it become one?
CAITIE SWITALSKI: Yes. And I think there’s definitely more of a congressional movement than a local movement. But you’ve seen a congressional consortium for safe seniors. They’ve come out with a hurricane guide specifically for nursing homes and assisted living facilities, with generator questions. And that question of preparedness is somewhat different to every facility based on the number of beds they have, who is running the facility, and how many people who have loved ones in these facilities are calling and asking questions about the generator and fuel and air conditioning.
IRA FLATOW: And so hurricane Dorian, as we say, mostly skipped Florida. But Florida is heading into the peak hurricane season. Do they have a sense of preparedness for that?
CAITIE SWITALSKI: Everyone’s got emergency plans. They have to have a quote, unquote, “emergency plan” on paper. And most of the nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the state are ready. They do have the generator power to cool everybody down for 96 hours. But if you look at what happened two years ago when we had Hurricane Irma, 12 deaths that were ruled homicides because of heat related causes, it didn’t take 96 hours for that to happen.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. All right, Caitie. Thank you very much.
CAITIE SWITALSKI: Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Caitie Switalski is a Broward County Bureau reporter at WLRN in South Florida.
Camille Petersen is a freelance reporter and Science Friday’s 2019 summer radio intern. She’s a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School. Her favorite science topics include brains, artificial brains, and bacteria.
Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.