September is National Preparedness Month to focus on planning in the event of a disaster or emergency, and Lifeskills South Florida took that to heart with the approach of Hurricane Irma. From the moment the storm set its sights on the Florida coast, the Lifeskills team went into action, making client safety and well-being, and family communication the number one focus.
Stress, anxiety, and fear are common responses for families who have a loved one in a disaster, so the first step was to inform the families of the hurricane and restoration plan. Executive Director, Klay Weaver, put the communication plan in effect. “Although we didn’t know the exact path of the storm, we sent our first communication to tell families about the safety of our facility, the purchasing of additional food, water, and supplies, and most importantly, that we were already making preparations to continue clinical services.”
Lifeskills South Florida knows that it is natural for people to experience different and strong emotions during and after a natural disaster. The team felt it was vital to keep families calm and informed and prepare for the range of emotions clients may have. In anticipation of those experiencing high anxiety and fear about the upcoming storm; clinical staff facilitated a series of clinical interventions in the group and individual forums so clients could process disturbing emotional responses and thoughts. Clients also received coaching from clinical staff in the application of coping skills to deal with the experience. The clinical staff scheduled critical and urgent medical appointments early in the week, and Dr. Daniel Bober, Lifeskills Medical Director, saw all clients for their weekly appointment in advance of the storm and was on-call throughout the event.
As it became apparent the storm would affect the area, Lifeskills continued the communication plan to families, “Once we realized the hurricane would impact us, our next communication gave specific details for protocols and preparations. Our goal was to ease any anxiety families, and friends would have,” said Klay.
The Lifeskills communication reiterated the preparations for clinical care and client needs, as well as facility and supply preparations, including having added medications on hand, and staffing plans. In addition to Klay, other members of the leadership team, including clinical, medical, and residential staff, were on-site before, during, and after the storm to give 24/7 support to clients. In case of communication disruption, leadership members outside of the state could send information about the status of the community during the storm. All staff on-site had cell phones and radios, and families were given a Hurricane Contact Tree that included staff phone numbers and email addresses in the event they were unable to connect through the main number. Klay shared, “Although we were sending communications via email, making ourselves as accessible as possible was important to reassure our families that their loved ones were safe.”
As the storm came through Florida, Lifeskills staff stayed calm and continued to communicate to families what was taking place on campus. Dan Thacker, Supervisor, was on-site to keep everyone fed with fresh fish for dinner, and homemade selections for breakfast. In addition to group and individual therapy, clients also had an array of games, arts, and crafts to engage in as the storm moved through.
After the storm passed, Lifeskills was fortunate not to sustain any serious damage. The Lifeskills team immediately informed families of the status of their loved ones and the facility. Included in the post-storm communication the detailed protocol of assessing the campus and clean-up process by the safety team. The clinical staff was individualized to meet the needs of the community and were on-site to incorporate individual and group therapy sessions. Clients met with their therapists, and Sara Acre, Director of Family Services, worked with therapists to contact the families.
As the sun rose and the day after the storm and Lifeskills moved towards normalcy, everyone came together for a Morning Reflection Group around the pool, where the entire community and staff listened to a daily NA meditation on gratitude. Clients and employees contributed with what they were grateful for after the storm. After a moment of silence to reflect on the gratitude in their lives, everyone threw debris into the pool and said an affirmative action of how they would impact the world today, with the final thought of “Leave it in the Pool.”
Klay shared, “We are all truly humbled by the support we received from our families and friends during this time. Our time of reflection made us all realize how indeed grateful we are that we were safe, and together.”
After the time around the pool, everyone unanimously joined in to rake, trim, pick up trash, mop water, and other tasks to get the campus back in tip-top shape. A cookout by the pool for all the clients and staff followed the cleaning activities.
“It truly was an experience, but communication was essential in relieving the anxiety and fear that can come with a disaster for not only our clients but also the families. We were physically and mentally prepared to be there to support them, and that helped everyone stay calm,” shared Klay.