CAPE CORAL, Fla. – An assisted care facility for patients with dementia and memory impairment that sheltered in place during Hurricane Irma went without power for three days as elderly patients suffered in the rising heat.
Cape Coral Shores, on a peninsula west of Fort Myers on the Florida Gulf Coast, had 20 patients stay during the storm as part of an agreement with state and local officials because the emergency shelters it would normally use in Fort Lauderdale and Sarasota were both evacuated as Irma approached. Power went out at the facility – as it did for more than half of Florida's residents – and was not restored for days even as homes and businesses all around it saw their lights come back on.
As the indoor temperature climbed to the mid-80s Tuesday morning, humidity made the hard-surfaced floors slick with condensation. Patients gathered in a small day room to catch a slight breeze from screened windows. A handful of small fans powered by a borrowed generator were all that kept the situation from devolving into a medical emergency, said Dan Nelson, Cape Coral Shores' chief operating officer.
"People here are fragile," Nelson said, adding that air-conditioning in such facilities are a medical necessity. "This is not just about comfort, it's about safety. We have magnet door locks that don't work, fire suppression equipment whose batteries have run out, assisted bed lifts that don't work. And the temperatures today and tomorrow are headed back to the mid-90s."
Karen Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Lee County Electric Cooperative, said that a crew was being sent to the memory care facility just before 3 p.m. Tuesday. Moments later, Alberto Moscoso, spokesman for the Florida Department of Emergency Management, said he located a large generator and 50 gallons of gas that he was going to deliver to the facility just as he learned the power had been restored.
Nelson said electrical crew members were able to repair the damage "in about 30 seconds" and that the utility company did not have the facility listed as a medical provider or would have had power back on sooner.
The situation at Cape Coral Shores was emblematic of the wider problem of massive power outages in Florida, which stretched from coast to coast and from the Keys to the Panhandle and into neighboring states. As of Tuesday, more than half of Florida's residents were still without electricity as a result of the hurricane's impact; the elderly and the very young are put most at risk from such outages, as September temperatures in Florida soar into the 90s. Officials have said it could take weeks to restore power in some places.
Sheltering in place was not an easy decision for Nelson, given the age and condition of the facility's residents, even as Florida officials were urging people to flee the possible path of the hurricane.
As predictions for Irma's landfall shifted to Florida's west coast, and as their emergency shelter options closed, Nelson thought about moving his patients to points north and inland. Orlando or Atlanta seemed impossibly far away, given the traffic snarls as millions of residents fled.
Staying put was a legitimate option because the health care building is sturdily constructed, built after Florida's tough building standards went into effect, and the roof is less than 10 years old.
Nelson said he kept the patients in Cape Coral only after government officials assured him that the facility would be a top priority for power restoration in the event of an outage. Electricity went out at 9 a.m. on Sunday. No one was been able to help until Tuesday afternoon.
"They all knew what we were doing and why," Nelson said on Tuesday, before the power was restored. "I have power at my house at the bottom of Cape Coral, the houses behind us have power, the businesses across the street have power, but we are still here in the dark."
Sheila Benn, who has been director of nursing there for two weeks and like other staff members has been working almost continuously since Sunday, said overheated elderly residents are at risk of heat stroke and hyperthermia, which can be deadly. The staff was also watching for signs of lethargy and more mental confusion than usual.
The situation would have been worse had it not been for another local nursing home, Angel Works, which heard of Cape Coral Shores' plight and provided a small generator with three five-gallon jugs of gasoline. Nelson said that generator is being used to cool the room of the most medically precarious patient and to keep the fans going in the rest of the facility. Nelson had ordered a large generator from a California manufacturer weeks ago, he said, but delivery was held up because of the impending hurricane.
The building held up fine in the storm. The patients did not appear to be aware of the crisis, and enjoyed the staff members' families and pets who stayed in the facility during the height of the storm. Benn's small dog, Clare, padded from person to person, seeking pats. Nelson's 3-year-old daughter Taylor brought water to people she considered grandparents.
"They're busy, hot and hungry," Benn said, as she sorted medications at her desk in the main living area.
Nelson said the situation was growing desperate when the power was restored Tuesday.
"Memory care patients require consistency and familiarity," he said. "When you take that away, you compromise their health."