A skilled nursing facility that was severely damaged during Hurricane Harvey will not be allowed to reopen as City Council members unanimously voted down a permit request, citing concerns about the facility’s handling of its evacuation and its potential flood risk.
“I think as a governing body, we have a responsibility to our citizens, the elderly in our community who can’t care for themselves, to ensure these facilities are constructed out of harm’s way,” Council Member John Scott said at the July 2 meeting when the vote took place.
Friendswood Health Care Center, 213 E. Heritage Drive, sustained damages in excess of 50 percent of its value, according to city staff, which meant that in order to rebuild, the owner had to seek out a zoning reclassification to meet new policies. The original permit was approved in 1974.
The Planning & Zoning Commission had given the request its full support June 4.
Owners ‘disappointed’ by decision
Officials with Health Services Management, which has owned Friendswood Health Care Center for about 12 years, said they were shocked by the council’s decision.
“There has been a total lack of transparency from the city about the process, and we have been working since late last fall to get this done [and]… we’ve followed their policies and coordinated with them,” said Josh White, vice president of operations with HSM. “That facility has been in Friendswood for almost 40 years, … so to be denied in the way we were, in an emotional fashion, leaves us feeling extremely disappointed.”
According to White, the company has no other recourse with the city to get its facility up and running and will likely no longer operate in Friendswood.
The one-story, 84-bed facility near Mary’s Creek is not in a special flood risk area and met flood plain elevation standards, city staff said, but it did flood during Harvey, taking on as much as several feet feet of water. Ric Pearson, a representative handling the permit application, told the council that the property never flooded before.
Although White came to HSM as vice president in October, he said that when he looked into the handling of the disaster, it was his understanding that city emergency officials told facility staff to shelter in place prior to the storm.
“In most cases, residents are typically safer that way than moving them all over the place because they are extremely vulnerable,” White said.
Council members said how the company handled its evacuation made them uneasy about allowing the facility to return to service.
“I was there. … There was no way they were going to be evacuated had we not rallied to gather boats,” said Scott, who helped organize a rescue effort.
Council discussion about the damage described as much as 4 or 5 feet of water in the facility, but company officials said the high mark was 32 inches on the low end of the building and 18 inches on the side where residents had gathered for rescue.
About 65 residents were placed on school buses and taken to Friendswood High School on Aug. 27.
There, volunteers stepped up to provide care but were unprepared for their needs, Council Member Steve Rockey said.
“We had volunteers that took care of your people,” until staff members arrived later, Rockey said. “I’m not blaming anyone. … It was a horrible flood. I just don’t feel comfortable agreeing to put a building that close where it can flood in that situation again.”
Council Member Sally Branson said the city should apply this mindset moving forward for both senior living and child care centers to keep them out of flood-prone areas.
“Those two age groups are vulnerable. They are dependent on someone else to evacuate them,” Branson said.
Ultimately, residents were relocated to other facilities owned by HSM, released to families or placed in alternative facilities in Friendswood, White said. One resident of the Friendswood Health Care Center, Ronald Zaring, died Aug. 29, 2017, while he was being transported from the high school to a facility in Huntsville, according to previous Community Impact Newspaper reporting.
HSM owns 12 other facilities in the Greater Houston and the east Texas area, as well as others in Florida and Indiana.