Florida Elders Cope in Charley's Aftermath

By Krueger, Curtis; Ulferts, Alisa | Aging Today, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview

Florida Elders Cope in Charley's Aftermath


Krueger, Curtis, Ulferts, Alisa, Aging Today


Following the devastation of Hurricane Charley on Friday, Aug. 13-at least 25 deaths, $7.4 billion in insured damage, 10,000 homes destroyed-the St. Petersburg Times assessed the storm's impact on elders and the state of disaster preparedness for older Floridians. The following report, reprinted here with permission, appeared on Aug. 18. Copyright St. Petersburg Times, 2004.

Four days after Hurricane Charley slammed into her mobile home, Alta Keller, 92, still has no power, no air conditioning, no phone and a tap that pours undrinkable water. To survive, she eats canned chicken, tuna fish and an occasional cup of instant coffee she heats over a can of Sterno. When sheriff's officials brought her some ice on Monday, "I almost felt like getting down and praying," she said in a trembling voice.

Keller has moved her bed into the dining room, away from the leaky roof, and she wonders how she will get the branches and twisted metal carport roof out of her yard in a mobile home park about 60 miles east of Tampa. A niece in Ohio has offered to take her in, but Keller, who is retired from a company that made refrigerator motors in Grand Rapids, Mich., refuses to leave. "This shows what I've got left of my life, you might say, my earnings," she said.

ISOLATION

Countless people like Keller-elderly, far from relatives and oftentimes frail-were left in Charley's wake as it churned across nine Florida counties in August. They are members of America's so-called greatest generation. But now, some experts and state officials fear, some of the people who survived the Great Depression and won World War II are facing .yet another hardship as they try to resume their lives.

Traumatic events like hurricanes sometimes prompt elders to become more isolated, said Jim Hinterlong, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Florida State University, Tallahassee, who works with the university's Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy. After surviving a hurricane and seeing that tree limbs and shingles remain in the yard, "you get this enhanced sense of being at risk or vulnerable," he said. In addition, Hinterlong said, "Some people are going to become depressed, especially if they've had losses-loss of property, loss of a pet." That can isolate them further.

The problem might be particularly keen in Charlotte County, where Charley made its violent landfall. Thirty-five percent of the county's residents are 65 or older, the highest percentage of any county in the United States. And 8% are 80 and older, a higher percentage than in any Florida county except Miami-Dade.

On the Monday after Charley hit, the state began a coordinated effort to track down the frailest people in Charlotte County, who receive help from such programs as Meals on Wheels and home healthcare. Similar efforts are underway in other counties that Charley struck. Terry White, secretary of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, joined workers checking on elders Monday in Charlotte. He said he was pulling in workers from around the state to assist in the most seriously damaged areas, and trying to make sure food and water are available to older people who can't leave their homes.

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