Hurricane Season Is Here. Many Nursing Homes Still Lack Permanent Backup Power To Cool Buildings

Jun 4, 2019

Hurricane season has started, and only about a third of Palm Beach County’s 55 nursing homes have a permanent generator in place to keep residents cool in case the power fails. Only about two-thirds of the county’s 185 assisted living facilities do.

After 12 residents of a Hollywood Hills nursing home died due to a power outage during Hurricane Irma, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring elder care facilities to have permanent backup power systems to cool the buildings by January 1. That was later extended to June 1, the start of hurricane season.

Facilities can still comply with the law by asking for a variance – essentially an extension – and having an emergency plan in place. That could mean having enough mobile generators on-site to keep the place cool, a generator they can access within 24 hours or an evacuation plan if they lose power. Even before the law passed, facilities had to have generators to keep necessary machines and life-saving equipment powered.

With hurricane season already here, Palm Beach County officials want to make sure these care facilities have some plan in place to make sure residents make it through safely, either in those facilities or in a separate location where they can be safely taken to wait out the storm and its aftermath. County staff are also working to make sure they know where everyone is and what their needs are, because hurricanes can wreck even well-laid plans. 

"We'd like everybody to be in compliance," said Palm Beach County commissioner Gregg Weiss. "But even in the best of circumstances, if that were true...we're dealing with mechanical systems, there could be a failure."

He said the county emergency management department and other staff have been working to "plan for all contingencies" so nursing home and assisted care facility residents in the county make it through any storm safely. 

Kristen Knapp, head of public relations for the nursing home group Florida Health Care Association, said Hurricane Michael showed that nursing homes in compliance were able to take care of their residents. She said several of the association’s nursing homes lost power for several days and were able to keep residents safe either on their permanent generators or on their variance-approved mobile power sources.

“People were in the lobbies with their sweaters on – you would never have known the power was out,” she said.

Every Florida nursing home is in compliance, meaning it either has the required permanent generators or a variance allowing it more time. More than 98 percent of Florida's assisted living facilities are in compliance.

Knapp said it’s been a years-long process for some nursing homes to get their permanent generators.

Demand for backup power after storms in Puerto Rico and Texas have kept generators large enough to power a 120-person facility in short supply. Even when generators can be found, nursing homes and assisted living facilities have to make sure they can be safely installed and maintained.

“It’s a construction project, and construction projects don’t go quickly,” said Knapp. “You want them to be done in a way that doesn’t trade one tragedy for another – you don’t want an electrical fire because you have quick, shoddy wiring.”

Installing the permanent generators can be a laborious process. Some facilities have to rewire their electrical system to support that permanent backup power. Generators often have to be custom-ordered and planned to fit each particular facility, and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Plans have to be approved by county or city and state officials before any work is done – and for those getting a variance, their emergency plans have to be approved as well. Those officials have to sign off again once the generators are installed before the facilities can bring them online. Knapp said the process took 1-2 years for many of FHCA’s members.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities can get extra time if the equipment they need isn’t available yet, if they couldn’t get their installations scheduled in time to meet the deadline, or if they were waiting on the necessary approval from state and local governments before they put their generators in. The state hasn’t set an end date for variances.

Of Palm Beach County’s 55 nursing homes, 18 have implemented a permanent backup power plan. The remaining 37 either had a variance requested or approved as of June 3, said AHCA spokesman Patrick Manderfield.

Though a smaller portion of the county’s 185 assisted living facilities needed variances – 43, or about a third – they also have a slightly lower rate of compliance than the state as a whole. Manderfield said 12 were out of compliance as of June 3 because they lacked either an approved plan to get their permanent generators, a date to implement that plan, or both.

The 10-bed Valerie’s Place in Lantana and the six-bed Valerie’s Place West in Loxahatchee are among those listed without a plan or date. Proprietor Valquiria Gonzalez said her facilities do have the state-mandated backup power, but some errors in the paperwork have kept them in the non-compliant column.

Valerie's Place is an assisted living facility in Lantana. Its proprietor says they have the requisite generators to power air conditioning in case of a hurricane, and they're working with the state to resolve the paperwork that would put them in compliance with state air conditioning backup power requirements.
Credit Madeline Fox / WLRN

“Both facilities have the generators, we’re just going back and forth with the paperwork,” she said Friday. “I hope by next week, my name will be off that list.”

Sandi Poreda, spokeswoman for the assisted living facility group Florida Senior Living Association, said the passage of the 2018 backup generator requirement created more demand for larger-scale generators than could be easily met.

“There are not an enormous number of engineering firms and equipment firms that can put in these generators,” she said. “When you look at the entire state of Florida, it's going to be difficult to meet all that demand at the same time.”

Knapp recommends that people worried about elderly friends or family members in nursing homes or assisted living facilities check in with the staff to find out their plans for a potential hurricane, and where they’ll provide updates if a storm does hit. She said some use social media, while others may set up a toll-free helpline.

AHCA has an interactive map of backup power compliance. FloridaHealthFinder.gov has a search tool for facilities that includes the number of beds, contact information and any violations or fines they’ve received.