S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard (second from left)
After the deaths of almost a dozen nursing homes patients in Florida as Hurricane Irma knocked out power across the state, S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard reached out to the state agency tasked with regulating senior care facilities in South Carolina to ensure that the same doesn’t happen here.
In the days after Hurricane Irma led a path of destruction across Florida, approximately 160 nursing homes remained without electricity. Rising temperatures and a lack of air conditioning would prove fatal for several patients. On Sept. 14, the day following the discovery that at least eight Florida nursing home patients had died inside the sweltering Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, state Rep. Gilliard wrote a letter to the acting director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control regarding the preparedness of South Carolina’s assisted-living facilities.
“When it comes to caring for our senior citizens, only the most proactive, not reactive approach must be formulated to ensure that unnecessary issues arise in the event of a natural disaster, such as was the case with the recent Hurricane Irma,” wrote Gilliard. “In the wake of what happened in Florida, would you please inform me of our state’s policies and guidelines specific to the usage of power generators when a normal power outage occurs?”
In a message dated Sept. 14, Gwen Thompson, chief of DHEC’s Bureau of Health Facilities Licensing, warned health facility administrators of the threat that extreme weather can pose to patients. Reminding administrators that health care facilities must prepare for disruptions to the power grid, Thompson wrote that administrators must contact DHEC immediately should a licensed facility experience a loss of cooling or heating, an interruption to its potable water supply, or loss of power.
In the days leading up to Irma’s impact on South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster rescinded an initial order of evacuation for 143 inpatient medical facilities along the state’s coast. As the storm shifted west, McMaster did call for the evacuation of eight barrier islands and called on medical facilities in Jasper, Colleton, and Beaufort counties to be emptied in preparation for record storm surge.
In a response to Rep. Gilliard’s inquiry, DHEC acting director David Wilson told the state legislator that the events in Florida had spurred a review of South Carolina’s storm preparations following the second year in a row that health care facilities along South Carolina’s coast were forced to evacuate.
“During Hurricane Matthew last year, DHEC worked with approximately 140 health care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, to ensure that patients and residents were safely evacuated and eventually returned to their health care facilities. We learned a lot during Hurricane Matthew,” wrote Wilson. “Taking lessons learned, DHEC created a computer application that allows us to quickly identify licensed facilities by evacuation zone. Using this new technology during Hurricane Irma, we quickly identified all of the facilities in the evacuation zones and Health Regulations division staff contacted those facilities by phone.”
According to Wilson, DHEC staff was tasked with collecting information on transportation status, where patients were going, and whether these facilities had adequate food, water, and supplies to relocate and care for patients. Emergency personnel were sent to four facilities that could not be reached by phone to ensure the buildings has been evacuated.
“In some cases, we assisted the facilities in securing ambulances to transport patients. If the need arose, we were prepared to help find locations to which patients and residents could evacuate,” wrote Wilson. “Had the storm continued of a direct path towards South Carolina, we were prepared to bring in FEMA ambulances to help with the evacuation. Staff verified with the facility administration that each facility in the evacuation zones had evacuated all residents.”