On Wednesday, August 30, 2017, Irma developed near the Cape Verde Islands from a tropical wave that moved off the West African coast three days prior. As we know all too well, Irma rapidly intensified, growing to a Category 5 Hurricane by Tuesday, September 5th. During Irma’s journey through the Atlantic, Plymouth Harbor’s Storm Team closely monitored its movement. Staff meetings took place at least twice daily during the week of September 4th to determine appropriate plans and preparations.

In addition to our Storm Team, Plymouth Harbor consulted with our “CCRC Consortium” — a group of retirement communities that we helped form more than 10 years ago, ranging in location from Sarasota to Naples. This group works together in times of need, serving as a sounding board and sharing resources and information. Throughout the development of Irma, we held regular meetings with this group, along with Ed McCrane, Chief, Sarasota County Emergency Management, to discuss plans and potential needs.

By Friday, September 8th, Irma’s track had shifted significantly further west, predicting landfall on Florida’s western coast and heading directly toward Sarasota. After again speaking with Ed McCrane and our CCRC Consortium, Plymouth Harbor announced a mandatory evacuation, which would commence on Saturday, September 9th. In the midst of all this planning, our staff was hard at work making sure that residents had a safe, secure, and comfortable shelter in the event of an evacuation. While our agreement with local hotels did not come to fruition due to overbooking and a plethora of unforeseen guests fleeing from South Florida, staff worked tirelessly to determine an alternative shelter: First Congregational United Church of Christ (UCC).

First Congregational UCC is Plymouth Harbor’s founding church, and was used as our independent living shelter some years ago. After viewing the church’s newly renovated, hurricane-rated facility, staff set to work preparing the space ahead of the evacuation decision. By the end of the workday on September 8th, cots, supplies, and an emergency generator were delivered and ready for use.

After evacuation was announced, staff teams and evacuation plans were finalized and put into place. Our CCRC Consortium stepped up, graciously offering supplemental buses in order to safely and swiftly evacuate our residents. Those communities included: Sarasota Bay Club, The Fountains at Lake Pointe Woods, The Pines of Sarasota, Lakehouse West, Sunnyside Village, The Glenridge on Palmer Ranch, Aviva Senior Life, and Village on the Isle. Additionally, Aviva Senior Life and The Glenridge on Palmer Ranch agreed to host our Smith Care Center residents and staff during the storm, while Sunnyside Village hosted staff and residents of our Assisted Living. By nightfall on Saturday, all parties were in place at their respective shelters.

While the experience was far from ideal, what came out of it was something special — a unique bond between staff and fellow residents, and an undeniable spirit of kindness and community. Residents never skipped a beat in rallying behind administration. They contributed in any way possible, helping one another and continually putting a positive spin on the situation. Some even joked that they had never experienced a “catered evacuation,” referring to Chef René’s impeccable spread, which included specialty salads, carved New York strip, salmon salad, and more. Residents at the church, including Peggy Wallace, Winnie Downes, Carl Denney, Ted Rehl, and John Goodman, shared their musical and show talents to help pass the time. At Sunnyside Village and Aviva Senior Life, residents and staff came together through song, puzzles, and conversation.

Resident Bobi Sanderson said the following of her time at the church: “I felt that the staff and assistance we received was absolutely unbelievable. We were given the ultimate help, both physically and mentally. It was well planned and well carried out to the nth degree.”

Charles Gehrie, who was also at the church, said, “The experience was very supportive. What most impressed me was the level of staff commitment. For instance, I knew our CEO was supporting us through plans and preparations; but what I didn’t expect was that when I had to get up in the middle of the night, he would be the one helping me out of my cot. That kind of commitment is extraordinary.”

Thankfully, Hurricane Irma slowed to a Category 2 storm as it neared Sarasota on Sunday evening, and we were blessed once again that our area was spared a direct hit. Overall, the Plymouth Harbor campus sustained minimal damage, and all residents were home by Tuesday, September 12th. We wish to thank our residents for your patience and understanding throughout this journey. We also extend our deepest gratitude to both our staff and community partners for your cooperation and generosity.

Please know that we are taking this opportunity to review and improve upon our preparations should the need for evacuation arise in the future. While Irma certainly presented an unfortunate situation, we know Plymouth Harbor is stronger from this experience.