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Wilma Leaves Florida Elderly Vulnerable

The state is organizing a 'massive effort' by nongovernmental and public agencies to care for frail residents with limited means.

November 06, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

SUNRISE, Fla. — It was a struggle for Jerry Rosokoff, 84, to make it to the front door of the third-floor apartment where he had been camped out since a hurricane swept through his retirement community.

With bad legs and kidneys, the former cemetery manager uses a cane, and walks slowly. Power had been out since the storm, and the elevator that Rosokoff depends on to leave his floor for the outside world had been immobilized for more than a week.

"I've been living on peanut butter pretty much," he said.

Worried about elderly shut-ins such as Rosokoff, Helene Zegarelli, an employee of the city of Sunrise, had come knocking, bearing a food package that included military-style meals in a pouch, grape soda, canned ravioli, potato chips and water. The retiree with the thick gray mustache thanked her, and joked that the hurricane might have had a silver lining after all.

"Maybe I'll lose a little weight," Rosokoff said.

In Florida's disaster-preparedness community, it's an axiom that each hurricane is different. Last year, Charley pulverized mobile homes near the Gulf Coast. In August, Katrina swamped Miami suburbs with heavy rain before devastating the Mississippi coast and New Orleans. When Wilma struck, the effect on Florida's elderly was especially harsh.

Wilma slashed across the state's heavily populated southern section Oct. 24. In its path lay numerous retirement communities, like the 900-unit, 25-building complex Sunrise Lakes Phase II, west of Fort Lauderdale, where Rosokoff and many other elderly of modest means live.

To care for this vulnerable group of storm victims, state and local agencies, along with nongovernmental organizations and private companies, have mounted a "massive effort," said George M. Tokesky, operations consultant with the state Department of Elder Affairs, who was sent to South Florida to act as a coordinator.

"We've been able to go out, blanket our communities and report back on their requirements, as well as meeting their needs," Tokesky said.

In advance of Wilma, for example, 26 assisted-living facilities and 15 nursing homes from Fort Myers to West Palm Beach and south to the Florida Keys transferred more than 1,500 patients to areas not at risk from the storm. State law requires such establishments to have a plan for such emergencies, and since Florida's experience last year with four hurricanes, "we've encouraged facilities to have a backup for their backup," said Jonathan Burns, spokesman for the state Agency for Health Care Administration.

In Wilma, said Burns, "I think the system worked."

But in some South Florida neighborhoods, some older men and women who live on their own said they had to rely on family and friends for help. Pauline Anderson, 80, said she and her daughter Bonnie, 55, a law office employee, had kept two buildings at Sunrise Lakes supplied with ice, water and food for days by going each morning to a distribution point and packing their car with supplies. "We took care of our own," Anderson said.

She said the first sign of help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency she saw came five days after Wilma hit.

As of last week, nearly half of the 27 deaths attributed to the hurricane or its consequences were of elderly Floridians, according to the state emergency operations center in Tallahassee. Those 13 victims included a 70-year-old woman dependent on an oxygen generator who died when the power went off; two men, 65 and 66, with heart ailments who died of hurricane-related work, and an 82-year-old woman in Palm Beach County who was struck when a sliding glass door at her home blew in on her.

Florida's three southeasternmost counties -- Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade -- are home to more than 1.12 million people age 60 or older, and more than 125,000 people 85 or older, according to the Department of Elder Affairs. Some of those residents lost their homes in Wilma and are now being housed and fed in shelters; in the longer term, some might require placement in nursing homes.

"It's very scary for people who've been doing well in their home setting to be in the place that, frankly, they fear the most," said Becky Gregory, director of Palm Beach County's division of human and veterans services.

For some residents of the multistory retirement communities that are a South Florida fixture, the prolonged power blackout caused by Wilma -- 341,000 customers were still without electricity Saturday -- meant they couldn't leave their homes for days.

As Zegarelli and two other municipal employees drove slowly through the Sunrise Lakes complex of brown- and buff-colored buildings with food and water meant for shut-ins, dozens of elderly men and women, some in wheelchairs, could be seen on the outside balconies.

"Do you have meals for diabetics?" called out one man from an upper floor. (The three women in blue T-shirts didn't.)

"I'm alone. I can't go out," Maria Ramirez, 92, a frail-looking immigrant from Colombia, said apologetically when Zegarelli brought her food and water.

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