Florida and Texas have been in the news and in our thoughts over the past few weeks as they have been impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The flooding and destruction these powerful storms left in their wakes was truly devastating to see.

While both of these states have become major retirement destinations because of their year-round warm climates, Florida is still considered the “Mecca” for many retirees. In fact, with 3.6 million seniors, the state of Florida has the largest percentage of people age 65 and older (20 percent), and its number of senior residents is second only to California. However, Hurricane Irma shed light on some of the challenges associated with preparing and caring for such a large population of seniors when a catastrophic weather event strikes.

You’ve likely heard about the tragic story out of Hollywood, Florida where a nursing home lost its air conditioning as a result of Irma’s powerful winds. Although the facility had back-up generators that powered a portion of the building, a blown transformer meant residents were left without air conditioning and endured sweltering temperatures near 100 degrees for several days, ultimately resulting in the death of eight residents.

The daunting task of evacuating so many seniors

According to data from the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, the state of Florida has 683 nursing homes with over 84,000 beds, 3,100 assisted living facilities with nearly 100,000 beds, as well as 70 continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs, also called life plan communities), which are home to approximately 40,000 seniors. More specifically, the three counties most impacted by Irma—Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach—are home to approximately 500,000 seniors age 75 and over. Some of these people are still healthy, independent, and living up their retirement years, while others are unwell or disabled and living in assisted living or nursing home facilities.

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One of the countless challenges presented by a disaster of Irma’s scale and magnitude is that many of these seniors are transplants—people who have moved to Florida for retirement. The result is that they often lack nearby family members who can help out during serious weather events, and they may not have lived in the area long enough to have even formed a strong network of community friendships and neighbors who will assist them in difficult times.

Among those retirees living independently in Florida, some are reluctant to evacuate and leave their home unattended; others underestimate the power of a large hurricane or the realities of going without refrigeration, air conditioning, and potentially water for an extended period after the storm is over. Some are simply too frail to leave on their own, lack transportation, or have no place to go.

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For the retirees living in Florida’s many nursing homes and assisted living facilities, there are other challenges that come with a mandatory hurricane evacuation. Residents who require lower levels of care—many of whom use walkers, wheelchairs, or canes—still need help packing up the essentials and boarding a bus to safety. People who require skilled care and are often bed-ridden must be relocated via ambulance to another nursing home or hospital. The logistics are mind-boggling.

A no-win situation for senior living communities

The Washington Post had an interesting article on a related topic this week. The article discussed the near-Herculean effort to evacuate these thousands of residents from south Florida’s many nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

The reality is that most of these residences for the elderly have done extensive advanced planning to prepare for just such an occasion, and their residents were safely moved out of harm’s way. But the article also shines a light on recent academic research, which found that the inherent stress that comes with a hurricane evacuation can be deadly for the elderly, resulting in a higher number of hospitalizations and deaths within 30 days post-evacuation than under normal conditions. And it can be an especially upsetting and confusing process for those who have memory-related issues.

The result is that the managers of these care facilities have a difficult decision to make with each approaching storm: Do they shelter-in-place and take on the potential risks that come with that, or do they evacuate and impose the stress of relocation on their residents? It’s a near-impossible choice.

Although nursing homes and assisted-living facilities that opt to shelter-in-place are required by law to maintain an emergency plan, which includes things like backup generators, food, and water for residents, the tragedy in Hollywood, Florida, shows that even with advanced planning, unforeseen circumstances can prove deadly for the most vulnerable among the population.

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Don’t write off Florida just yet

Flooding, droughts, blizzards, earthquakes, tornados: No place on Earth is immune to Mother Nature’s power. But with the increasing number and severity of the hurricanes in recent years, some seniors are second-guessing their long-time desire to retire to Florida. In fact, I was talking with a senior last week who said Florida is now “off the table” for them.

It is certainly understandable that some are reassessing their retirement destination after seeing the images of Irma on the news, and there are many wonderful places to retire in this country aside from Florida. But I wouldn’t necessarily scratch Florida off your list. To put things into perspective, it has been 25 years—a quarter of a century!—since a Category 5 hurricane, Andrew, hit the state, and since Andrew, there’s only been one Category 4 storm aside from Irma—Charley in 2004. While they do get more hurricanes than say, Illinois, overall, the state of Florida is very well-prepared to deal with hurricanes; they have solid emergency plans in place and people with the know-how to execute those plans when needed.

Florida’s many CCRCs and other senior living communities have much to offer their residents including a great year-round climate, nearby beaches, and countless activities. Although the areas impacted by Hurricane Irma have a large clean-up process in front of them, the state will continue to have many alluring features for retirees.

To learn more about retiring in Florida, including information on taxes, senior housing, and state CCRC regulations, check out our free Florida profile report. Or, to search for CCRCs in the state, visit our free online community search tool.

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