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Treating Addiction Patients in the Midst of Natural Disaster

Author: Jaclyn Daugherty

Danielle LaPointe and Zina Rodriguez, executive directors of Sunspire Health Hilton Head and Sunspire Health Recovery Road, share their experiences about patient evacuation during Hurricane Irma and how to maintain quality addiction treatment when natural disaster strikes.


When Hurricane Irma made landfall in early September, Sunspire Health’s East Coast facilities already had plans in motion to evacuate to a safe place. But patient evacuation was only part of the plan; ensuring that patients continue their treatment plan is important, too.

Watching, Waiting, Launching the Emergency Management Plan

The first step doesn’t require a lot of action, but keeping an eye on the storm is an important part of the emergency protocol nonetheless. In the case of a hurricane, even if the storm is a Category 1, the facilities must evacuate to ensure that all patients will be safe.

As the storm develops, Recovery Road and Hilton Head staff work with the Sunspire Health corporate office to watch the storm and listen for announcements from local government officials. When it was time to evacuate, both facilities knew exactly what to do.

“We just pulled the Emergency Management Plan out and followed the instructions. It’s just like following a recipe.” — Danielle LaPointe, NCC, LPC, Executive Director

The Emergency Management Plan is incredibly comprehensive and covers everything from communicating with patient families to boarding up the facility once the evacuation has taken place. Parts of the plan include scanning and securing patient records, ordering a seven-day supply of any medications patients will need, and gathering necessities like water and food.

Securing Patient Accommodations

The next step? Transporting patients to safe locations. These places are chosen ahead of time so there’s no question as to where patients will relocate to. Choosing this space isn’t just about safety; it must also be a comfortable place where patients can carry out the rest of their treatment.

For Sunspire Health Hilton Head, patients and designated employees were moved to an inland hotel that had a generator. The Hilton Head center had a contract already in place with the hotel ahead of time. (In fact, they had success using this hotel during Hurricane Matthew in 2016). 

The ballroom in the hotel is transformed into a mock treatment center, with stations patients go to for certain aspects of treatment. This allows patients to pick up right where they left off before the evacuation.

“Within the ballroom we have a place for therapy, a place for dining, a place for nursing, and also a place for clients to do groups and activities with each other,” LaPointe says.

Aside from the change in location, the rest is business as usual.

“We conduct business the same way we would if we were at our facility. The schedule that we maintain and manage is the same. [Patients] wake up, have their meditation and devotion, then they go to a process group, they have family and individual sessions throughout that day. They also do CBT and Seeking Safety and other evidence-based treatment modalities.”

Adapting to Challenges

Recovery Road typically follows a similar plan. But during the most recent storm, things had to be handled a little differently.

During Hurricane Irma, nearly all of Florida had to evacuate. Recovery Road had to adapt. The best choice was to evacuate patients to Sunspire Health Heartland, an Illinois-based center that can accommodate patients out of harm’s way.

Since Heartland is already set up and staffed to treat patients, Rodriguez knew her patients would be taken care of. The next steps were to book flights and designate staff to fly with the patients to the center. But this task didn’t come along as easy as she hoped. Recovery Road is located on the coast in South Florida, so their Emergency Management Plan had to evolve to accommodate the rapid growth, movement, and intensity of the storm.

“At one point, the governor called for the evacuation of the entire state, so logistically it created some serious challenges for us just in travel and […] in our staffing. Because now, staff that we had previously committed to being the ‘pre-team’ and evacuating with the clients had to deal with their own situation.”

Four hours before evacuation was set to take place, Recovery Road had to shift staff roles. That way, staff who had homes in the path of the storm could evacuate with their families.

“Patient care and employee safety: we were balancing the two.” — Zina Rodriguez, MSW, LSW, Executive Director

Some Unexpected Benefits

Both LaPointe and Rodriguez said they were in awe of the commitment shown by their staff. Not only did staff members have to travel with patients—driving vans, offering support, and administering medications along the way—many stayed on-site at the new treatment location. The directors agreed their staff showed unwavering dedication to patient care throughout the process.

What’s more, this level of support can empower patients when they realize they can handle a stressful situation without drugs or alcohol.

“There’s something about being in a crisis, and being in your own personal crisis as a patient and knowing that people are taking care of you,” Rodriguez says. “I think it creates a real special bond with the staff and the peer of patients that are traveling together.”

It’s clear that patients felt cared for throughout the process; all patients who evacuated from Recovery Road and Hilton Head returned to finish treatment at the centers once the storm was over.

“It’s incredible how a journey like this brings out the best in people,” LaPointe adds. 

Sunspire Health is a nationwide network of behavioral healthcare providers, offering a comprehensive approach to addiction treatment and co-occurring mental health disorders. Learn more by visiting our website