11/16/2012 08:26 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

After Sandy, Communication Breakdown Hampered Efforts To Find Evacuated Seniors

Davin Coppedge startled awake at 2 a.m. the night that Hurricane Sandy swept across New York City. He had a text message. It was his mother alerting him that the ground floor of his aunt's home on the sliver of land known as the Rockaways had flooded all the way to the ceiling.

His aunt turned out to be fine, and his thoughts quickly shifted to his grandmother, Janie Brown, who lived nearby at Resort Nursing Home in Arverne, one of the lowest-lying neighborhoods in the Rockaways. He called the facility, but got no answer, just the rapid beep-beep-beep of a disconnected phone.

"There was no communication, no way to contact her," said Coppedge, who lives in Boston -- too far away to easily go and have a look for himself. "I didn't know anything."

The Rockaway peninsula, an 11-mile spit of land that extends out from New York City into the Atlantic Ocean, suffered a particularly powerful blast from Sandy, the superstorm that ravaged the East Coast nearly three weeks ago. Despite a general evacuation order, the local nursing homes kept their residents in place through the storm, a decision that left these elderly and disabled people exposed to its wrath. Over the next few days, most such facilities evacuated in a near communication black-out, leaving dozens of families like the Coppedges scrambling to find out what had happened to their loved ones -- an agonizing plight that often stretched on for many days.

When reached by phone, Jacob Perles, the administrator of Resort Nursing Home, declined to comment on the evacuation or discuss the steps the home took to communicate with relatives of residents.

As The Huffington Post previously reported, the city's Office of Emergency Management, in consultation with the health department, issued orders to the nursing homes to "shelter in place" -- that is, stay put -- nearly three days before the storm came ashore.

Samantha Levine, a spokeswoman for the mayor's office, said various factors, including the fragility of patients, the 48 hour head-start needed to evacuate and a forecast that didn't appear severe enough to warrant evacuation, contributed to the decision to keep 3,000 or so elderly and disabled people in the Rockaways through the storm.

The city declined to respond directly to a question about whether family notification procedures had proven adequate. "In the days immediately following the storm our priority was ensuring the safety of the residents and we moved as quickly as possible to gather and provide information to family members," Levine said in an emailed statement.

Neil Heyman, president of the Southern New York Association, a trade group that represents several of the Rockaways nursing homes, said he expected that the city, the health department and affected institutions will eventually discuss how to better prepare for the next emergency.

In the week following the storm, more than two dozen family members of residents at nursing homes in the Rockaways emailed the Huffington Post, asking for help finding loved ones who had effectively gone missing in the wake of the storm. Most had spent days on the phone, trying to get answers from city agencies, the police, the Red Cross -- anyone they could think to call.

"He is not mentally stable and my family and I are very concerned," wrote Tara Johnson, who was looking for her uncle Kevin Johnson who had been evacuated from Promenade Nursing Home. "We have tried contacting several places we thought they may have been taken and have not had any success."

At the suggestion of Levine, this reporter told Johnson and other family members who wrote seeking help to call 311, the city's information line. But this didn't always work, the family members said.

Tara Johnson said her family tried the Office of Emergency Management, the Hurricane Sandy Hotline and the city's 311 number, all to no avail. On Sunday, six days after the storm, Kevin Johnson finally called his family from a shelter in Manhattan. "I don't understand how this was allowed to happen in the first place," Tara Johnson said.

Prior to the arrival of the storm, the Rockaways nursing homes took a number of steps to limit potential hazards. They evacuated patients who were on ventilators, while moving staff and residents from ground floor locations to higher floors. Some stockpiled food on higher floors, while making sure that charts and other critical medical data were safely removed from potential flood waters.

Even so, many facilities proved ill prepared for the ferocity of the storm. In interviews, the administrators of two homes -- Park Nursing Home and Horizon Care Facility -- said that they didn't expect the storm would cause as much damage as it did, and they had not grasped just how rapidly floodwaters can rise. Many homes had neglected to move emergency backup generators beyond reach of the rising waters.

The flood waters caused immense damage. Most of the nursing homes and adult care facilities lost power and heat. Lobbies were wrecked and interior walls crumbled. Residents and staff were stuck in cold, dark facilities, with not enough flashlights.

Critically, surging water also took down phone lines and rendered inoperable the voice-over-internet systems upon which some of facilities rely. As a result, many of the homes failed to fulfill one of their primary requirements under city protocols that govern evacuations: notify relatives. Instead, they subjected relatives to a kind of perfect storm of bad communication. Family members absorbed news reports about the calamity unfolding on the Rockaways -- not only coastal surges and flooding, but a spate of fires. Yet when they tried to find out what had happened their kin -- whether they had been moved or were still in harm's way -- they got nothing. No answer, no information, no reassurance, nothing to check their worst visions of what might have happened. They could not even determine whether the facilities were still standing.

For their part, staffers at the homes said that the near communication blackout made reaching out to families in the immediate aftermath of the storm all but impossible. Over the next few days, staffers at homes awaiting evacuation were able to use only personal cell phones or emergency radios to communicate with the city's Office of Emergency Management. These devices used batteries, which began to die within hours of the flood.

Nicole Markowitz at Horizon Care Facility coordinated the evacuation of 268 fragile residents to a shelter in Brooklyn using a cell phone that she charged in a staffer's car, and with new radios delivered by a vendor the morning after the storm. This was after a harrowing night spent first wading through water on the ground floor to make sure all the staff was upstairs, then patrolling the hallways, checking on patients with a maglite. She wore the backup for her computer network around her neck, "where it wouldn't get wet," she said.

"We did the best we could under the circumstances," Markowitz said. "Some of our staffers didn't even know where we were for a while."

Markowitz said that a few days after the storm, volunteers and social workers at the Park Slope Armory, the first evacuation site, called every emergency contact number they had for patients. Markowitz also used her cell phone, she said, to arrange for the temporary placing of all of her residents at nursing homes around the region. She said she provided a full list of the homes and patients to the Department of Health, but said that as recently as this week she had heard from one of the facilities, which had received a call from a family member misdirected there, apparently by someone at a city agency.

It is impossible to say with authority how many family members endured frantic days trying to track down a loved one. But despite the efforts of Markowitz and other staffers at the homes -- some of whom worked days on end without rest or changing clothes -- some family members clearly weren't contacted.

Jan Zaremba-Smith failed to track down her brother, Peter Zaremba, a mentally ill 61-year-old who lived at Horizon Care, until this week. It's not clear why Zaremba-Smith, who said she is her brother's emergency contact, didn't get a call, but for other residents the answer could be outdated names or phone numbers, or overworked staffers simply failing to make some calls.

Most, like Zaremba-Smith, said they understood how in the chaos, not every call might get made. "I assume he is being cared for," she said in an interview before she finally heard from someone at Horizon, who told her that her brother was at Williamsbridge Nursing Home in the Bronx. "But it's hard not knowing."

Zaremba-Smith called 311 looking for help and was wrongly directed to a high school in Queens, she said.

Had the evacuations happened before the storm, the notification problem likely wouldn't have been an issue. Family members said staffers at the homes called them in advance of Hurricane Irene 14 months ago, before rescue workers evacuated many of these same facilities.

This time, the evacuations were done in the cold and dark. On the Tuesday and the Wednesday after the storm, rescue workers evacuated 12 homes in the Rockaways and six in Coney Island, carrying residents down dark stairwells and in some instances into still-flooded streets. They took the residents to shelters set up in gymnasiums and high schools, as well as to other nursing homes.

Staff and residents at several homes said that the evacuations unfolded more or less without incident, though in some instances patients were sent without proper medical records, and arrived at facilities, such as Brooklyn Technical High School, that were dry and warm but lacked basic facilities, like washrooms.

Coppedge, who couldn't find his grandmother, isn't satisfied with the explanations from the authorities that they moved as quickly as possible and will strive to do better next time. Like other family members in search of a nursing home resident, he spent the days after the storm on the phone and scouring the Internet for news. He called the city's 311 number, he said. An operator told him to call the Red Cross, which in turn suggested he call the city's evacuation shelters.

"I basically exhausted every number I could think to call," he said.

On Thursday, a cousin in Atlanta identified a patient tracking number, which led the family to Bethel Nursing Home in Peekskill, a small town about about 60 miles north of New York along the Hudson River. Coppedge's mother, Jacqueline Coppedge, called Bethel several times, she said, but was told that something was wrong with the phones and the staff could not connect her with her mother.

"I was told that all the patients were happy to be there, happy to be warm," she said. Her mother, she learned, had come in Wednesday evening, nearly two full days after the storm.

On the Saturday following the storm, Jacqueline and Davin Coppedge drove down to Bethel from Boston. The plan was to meet there with the Atlanta cousin and the aunt who lives in the Rockaways.

But that family reunion never happened.

When they arrived at Bethel, staffers told Jacqueline and Davin that an ambulance had taken Brown to nearby Hudson Valley Hospital shortly before they arrived. Worried, they drove to the hospital, where a doctor told them that Brown was severely dehydrated and her blood sugar was extremely high. She died a few hours later.

It's not clear what had transpired.

Brown had been confined to a wheelchair, and she suffered various health problems, including diabetes. The day before the storm, Coppedge's aunt had checked in on her, he said, finding her alert and in good spirits.

Jacqueline Coppedge said a nursing director at Bethel later told her that when Brown arrived at the facility, after two days in the dark and cold, she was alert, but weak and lethargic.

The family's account of what they were told could not be independently confirmed, and staffers at the home declined to comment on the conditions inside prior to evacuation, though the facility lost power and suffered flood damage, like most of the other homes in the area.

Academic studies have shown that moving elderly and fragile people, even under the best of circumstances, can be deadly. Coppedge said he doesn't know what happened to his grandmother and isn't ready to jump to conclusions.

But he wants answers, including to the question of why it took so long to find her.

"My anger is that if you are going to evacuate patients there should be a central number to call to find out information where they are," he said. "This is unacceptable."