Hurricane Irma was ripping through the Caribbean, leaving widespread and catastrophic damage in its wake. Up in Florida, emergency officials were ordering large swaths of the state to evacuate. A record 6.5 million Floridians heeded the order, marking the largest evacuation in Florida’s history.

Meanwhile, staff and residents of Miami Jewish Health Systems hunkered down as the monster storm approached. 

Jason Pincus“The night before Irma came through, we thought we were going to be hit by a category 5 hurricane,” says Jason Pincus, nursing home administrator and vice president of operations at Miami Jewish Health. “We were really expecting the worst, but all of the staff were prepared. Whether it’s a 1 or a 5, you’re going to take all of the necessary precautions.”

There was a lot to prepare for. The sprawling 20-acre Miami Jewish Health campus holds a 420-plus bed skilled nursing center—the largest in the Southeast, a 32-bed hospital, a 100-room assisted living community, and a 100-room independent living building. 

The facility, which sits on the highest ground in the Miami area, had been through many hurricanes in its nearly 80-year history. 

“We had all of our emergency supplies, we had backup food and hurricane supplies,” Pincus says. “And the next day, we had to deal with a lot of rain, a lot of wind. We lost power in our buildings, but our emergency generators all worked like they’re supposed to.”

Fortunately, the hurricane had rapidly decreased in strength, sparing residents the full fury of one of nature’s most powerful forces.

Unexpected Hur​​dles

But that’s not to say Miami Jewish Health didn’t take a few hits. 

After the power outage, two of the city’s three power sources to the campus came back on within a day. But the third line remained out for several days more. Miami Jewish Health’s backup generators roared into action, powering the many portable air-conditioning units throughout the campus. But it wasn’t enough. Temperatures outside soared into the high 90s, while temperatures inside started to creep up as well.

“Our medical staff didn’t feel it was cooling enough, so we were able to utilize one of our other buildings on campus as an area of refuge,” Pincus says. “It had full power and air conditioning. We were able to bring our residents down and provide activities throughout the day.” 

Miami Jewish Health maintains a backup fuel capacity that well exceeds the current four-day requirement. Furthermore, the facility has an agreement with its backup generator company to provide someone onsite during a storm who can make repairs if needed. 

One of the generators, in fact, did go down during Irma. “And that’s exactly why that person was here, they were able to get that up and running immediately,” Pincus says.

After th​e Storm Passes

While initial emergency efforts focused on the storm itself, conditions after the hurricane were just as challenging. Staff members had been working 12-hour shifts. When Shift B arrived after the storm, those staffers had to do just as much work—if not more—than the Shift A that rode out the storm, Pincus says.

“You think the storm passes and everything is back to normal,” he says. “But that really is just when you start to clean everything. We had broken windows, we had downed trees, downed power lines, flooding in certain areas. We had to start assessing how the roads are out there. Are the trucks able to get here to deliver your food?”

Added to the list of concerns was the fact the neighborhood lost power for roughly four days after the storm. For the safety of residents and staff, leadership put the campus on lock-down at night. 

To Stay​ or Not to Stay?

Some might wonder whether it would have been more prudent to evacuate the residents ahead of the storm.

Miami Jewish Health President and Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Freimark says the decision was made to keep residents and patients in place. “To move them is extremely disruptive and potentially detrimental to their health,” he says. “Everyone who was on our campus, from before the storm, during the storm, and at the conclusion of the storm, came through just fine.”

Communicating the ongoing situation to the outside world, both during and after the storm, was top priority. Miami Jewish Health pushed out messages several times a day through social media and the website, says Churé Gladwell, vice president and chief development officer at Miami Jewish Health. “We found out how important that was to keep information flowing, so that family members were aware of developments and that their loved ones were safe,” she says.

Lessons Lear​ned

While Miami Jewish Health has been through many hurricanes over the years, each one offers something to be learned. 

One lesson following Irma was to fully harden the campus auditorium, including adding hurricane-strength windows and doors. This area, which also has kitchen facilities, now serves as a backup evacuation site on campus to house people. “That’s a $500,000 bill for us,” Freimark says. “But we firmly are committed to what we do, and believe fundamentally that’s a prudent step to take.” 

Another lesson was to leave some wiggle room in bed occupancy. Miami Jewish Health serves as a place of refuge for people in the community, and it tries to fill up every bed during a storm, Pincus says. 

“But during the storm things come up, and our medical team sometimes has to make a decision to move people around to different buildings for monitoring,” he says, pointing to an example of a resident who may need to move from the assisted living facility to the nursing facility or hospital. 

“We realized that we might need to keep a few beds available for our current residents, should they need to be moved to a higher level of care.” 

Another significant decision that resulted from Hurricane Irma was to harden the campus’ communications infrastructure. Cell phones and landline

phones went down in the area, and since Miami Jewish Health is spread over a large campus, communicating with personnel in different buildings was very difficult.

“We’re looking at different types of cell phone and cell phone carriers, as well as radios,” Pincus says. “We have ordered many extra radios for our staff, including our medical team. We’ll be able to communicate 24 hours a day during a storm.”

Other smaller lessons learned also became apparent. Stocking up on more thermometers, stethoscopes, and emergency packs, as well as more box fans versus pedestal fans, are among them. 

Final Analysis: In a ‘Very Good Place’

So what’s the overall assessment? Freimark says the preparation and execution of the emergency plan was successful. 

“As we were walking around during the storm, our residents were in a very good place,” he says. “They were well occupied, and we did keep them busy with activities. It is at least equally important to be communicating with family members, who are not on campus, watching only what’s going on, on television. We were very active on social media.”

The residents agreed. After the storm, Miami Jewish Health received letters from residents thanking staff for taking such good care of them, Pincus says.

“The board of our residents council said that Miami Jewish Health puts them at ease,” he says. “They know they’ll be well taken care of by Miami Jewish Health in the event of a storm. That’s one thing they didn’t have to worry about.”​