Provider gives perfect response to Hurricane Harvey evacuation critics ... and then gets taken to court

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

Perhaps it's because I come from a family of educators, but I like to find teachable moments, even among the most adverse conditions.

Hurricanes definitely fall into that category. So I was on the watch for optimistic signs before, during and after hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit Texas and Florida, respectively, over the past few weeks.

Late last week, I latched onto what I thought — and still think — is a great example of how a provider should respond to a bad public relations incident. Anxiously, I waited through the weekend to blog about it, hoping no one else would take my great idea. No one did.

And then on Wednesday, the bottom started to fall out. But it didn't erase the learning opportunity for providers. As of this writing, we don't know whether the lesson will be how to do something or how NOT to do it. But it is clearly something we will hear more about in the mainstream media and other channels for a long time to come.

Let me explain.

On Wednesday, Aug. 30, lengthy video clips showing flooded hallways and distressed workers, volunteers and residents at Arthur Lake Place in Port Arthur, TX, began to circulate on the internet. Volunteers boldly sloshed through the facility — oddly enough always with a TV camera present — and cast aspersions about the care and management of the facility.

This was occurring even as Harvey continued to dump some of its 50 inches of rain, crippling all kinds of businesses in the area. Bad things were going to come of this, I predicted in last week's blog post. At the time, I thought it would mean scolding for the cameraman and reporter, who apparently believed that the storm had stripped private property owners of their right to accept or reject visitors as they saw personally fit.

OK, maybe the provider would get some backlash for not having perfectly trouble-free emergency preparedness plans, I thought. But not likely, given the historic nature of Harvey, I told myself.

Not long after, however, a digital lynch mob started to build public opinion against Arthur Lake's management and ownership teams. Rogue volunteers forced themselves onto the scene and took at least one resident, according to news video I saw.

Then, something great happened: The accused fought back.

On Sept. 7, management posted a respectful yet stinging rebuttal to its opponents that covered the bases better than a slugger hitting for the cycle.

“[A]s employees of our Lake Arthur Place skilled nursing facility worked with authorities to ensure a timely, safe and organized evacuation of our residents amidst the chaos of Hurricane Harvey, residents of that facility were forcibly evacuated by unknown volunteers,” wrote Andrew Kerr, president of parent company Senior Care Centers, in a Facebook post that was widely circulated.

He went on to call out rogue volunteers for physically restraining facility workers and then scattering residents to other points that were unknown to their professional caregivers.

Kerr also challenged the “considerable misinformation across social and traditional media about the steps that were taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey-related flooding.”

I won't repeat his entire message, but the highlights include a timeline and the explanation that he and his staff were in “constant contact” with the local fire department and Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services about evacuation procedures.

Authorities told them the National Guard would soon arrive to evacuate the residents, he said, but worsening storm conditions prevented that. As a result, licensed caregivers sheltered in place with their charges.

“Medications, food and water were provided,” Kerr emphasized. Medical personnel continually monitored residents. In other words, all the right steps were being taken, given the circumstances. Ultimately, staffing levels remained healthy and employees “tirelessly” tracked down the hijacked residents.

“We applaud the efforts of our team members who went above and beyond to take care of our patients and residents,” Kerr said in his posting. “And while we appreciate the rescue efforts of well-intended volunteers, those efforts must be coordinated with the authorities to help ensure the safety of those being evacuated.”

If you work in this profession and haven't read Kerr's full message, you should do so now by clicking here. It is the way providers need to to tackle naysayers head-on. (We'll wait while you do that and then close out this tale ... )

So there you have it, I thought: A perfect (or near-perfect), appropriately aggressive response to bad-mouthing that occurred even as staff were doing their best under impossible circumstances.

More operators need to learn this approach and counter unwarranted criticism deftly but fearlessly. We've seen many providers take their lumps in the court of public opinion only to not openly rebut charges or otherwise fight back.

Then on Wednesday news broke that a small group of residents' families had sought, and been granted, a temporary restraining order against the facility, its administrator and its parent company. All emails, texts, photos and any other communications around the time of the flooding are to be preserved.

The goal is to file a lawsuit alleging medical malpractice, the daughter of one affected resident told eager TV interviewers. She wants to draw on conversations she said she had with staff members about the onset of the flooding and how other phone calls were diverted to unresponsive corporate offices.

She also plans to use photos she took — and, no doubt, TV videos — that show residents languishing in wheelchairs and gurneys in heavily flooded first-floor hallways. This would appear to directly contradict a claim in Kerr's statement that said residents were taken to higher ground overnight.

A hearing on the allegations is scheduled for Sept. 22 in the District Court of Jefferson County, and you can bet it will be covered like ants on honey by the mainstream media. Coupled with the revelation Wednesday of at least eight facility deaths in Florida after a Hurricane Irma-fueled power outage, expect the phrase "nursing home" to be treated with a degree of disdain that hasn't been seen nationally for quite a while.

We'll be watching developments diligently, so check back often to learn the outcomes and implications for the profession. Expect teachable moments by the boatful to come out of these soggy scenarios.

Follow Editor James M. Berklan @ JimBerklan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.