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'She can barely walk': Florida's elderly complicate hurricane response

'She can barely walk': Florida's elderly complicate hurricane response
From Reuters - September 10, 2017

ESTERO, Fla (Reuters) - Sheryl Estes lay in a foldable lounge chair, wrapped in blankets and surrounded by a sea of mattresses, storm refugees and their dogs. Her husband, Rick, squeezed in beside her, between an animal crate and a trash can.

Estes was among thousands of Florida evacuees who streamed into Germain Arena, a sports and concert venue in the states southwest corner, seeking shelter from Hurricane Irma. They included a large contingent of elderly and medically frail residents of one of the worlds premier retirement destinations.

Estes, 60, had been released from the hospital days earlier. Her home health aides had stopped coming by the house because of the impending storm. She struggles to speak and walk following a car accident, dozens of surgeries and a bout with gastroparesis, a stomach condition.

The shelter offered hot dogs but no medical care.

Its difficult to be here in the condition shes in and with all the medicine, said Rick Estes, 64.

The large population of elderly residents in South Florida is posing a severe test for officials scrambling to respond to one of the most powerful storms to ever threaten the state.

How emergency responders mobilize to care for senior citizens could have a profound impact on the number of deaths and injuries Irma claims when it makes its expected landfall on Sunday. The storm has killed at least 22 residents of islands along its destructive path.

The elderly are particularly vulnerable in storms and floods, especially those who live alone, suffer from chronic medical conditions or face physical and mental disabilities, experts said. A 2008 study of deaths from Hurricane Katrina found that nearly half of a representative sample of victims were older than 75.

Florida has among the highest concentrations of senior citizens in the nation. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there were more than 1.6 million people who were at least 75 years old in Florida in 2015, and it considers almost half of them disabled.

This includes 497,000 people who have trouble walking or climbing stairs, 202,000 people who have trouble bathing or dressing and 221,000 who have trouble concentrating, remembering things or making decisions.

The Estes fled their home in Cape Coral on Saturday after the hurricane tracked west and state officials warned of storm surges as high as 15 feet along parts of the coast.

When Sheryl Estes needed to use the womens bathroom, Rick helped her to the entrance, carefully braced her hand against the wall and waited as she went inside.

She can barely walk, he said. I went as far as I could.

SURGE OF EVACUEES

The demand for shelters along the west coast of Florida on Saturday quickly overwhelmed the available facilities, staff and resources, leaving authorities scrambling to accommodate the human tide flowing into an expanding number of shelters.

Jack and Mary Jo Shively, 85 and 78, were turned away from three shelters at public schools and waited for hours before finally getting into Germain Arena.

Weve been all over Florida today, seeking shelter, said a clearly exasperated Jack Shively, clutching his shaggy white dog, Chrissy, in the arenas bleachers.

The arena had quickly filledand would close to new evacuees by the end of the day, having already taken in more than 5,000 people. Late Saturday afternoon, it seemed about a third of the people there were senior citizens, many of them in wheelchairs.

Though older residents typically need the most help, they are often also the most resistant to leaving their homes and seeking shelter.

A SONS ANXIETY

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