Evacuating the Elderly

Emergency experts are warning people to keep a full tank of gas and plenty of supplies in hand this hurricane season. But what if you or a loved one lives in a nursing home? Bill Stamps tells us some facilities may not be as prepared as they should be.
Anyone who lived in Houston during Hurricane Rita knows what a nightmare it caused when tens of thousands of people tried to evacuate. If you think getting a family out of town was tough...imagine trying to evacuate elderly patients who have trouble walking or who may have special needs.

A new study shows many nursing homes didn't do so well during Rita.

"Quite a few facilities were taken aback and weren't as prepared as they should have been. But they did what they could."

That's Carmen Castro from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Nursing. It is her job to make sure patients in nursing homes and assisted living facilities are treated according to government standards. Her office did the study. And what she found was that three years after Rita, many facilities still aren't prepared for a major disaster evacuation. I asked her what grade she'd give the facilities.

"That I can't really say. It was a learning experience is all I can say."

You can take that to mean whatever you want. Castro says here findings aren't all bad. She says almost all facilities have some sort of plan, which by law they must.  They also have to train their staff and do periodic evacuation drills. But Castro says that won't matter much if the plan is weak to begin with.

"The two greatest problem areas in preparedness is transportation and staffing."

Castro says its the smaller homes that have the most problems — mainly because of staffing. During Rita many facilities had to call patients relatives to have them picked up. But not all patients have relatives. And not all relatives live close enough to pick them up. Castro says the encouraging news is that most of these homes for the elderly are working and rethinking their disaster plans.

BILL STAMPS KUHF HOUSTON PUBLIC RADIO NEWS.