Elderly among Andrew's most vulnerable victims Many too dazed to start over again

September 07, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Hurricane Andrew snatched the roof of Henry Hardin's house and toppled its outer walls, but it left one closet standing and that was where rescue workers found him four days after the storm.

"My life is here," Mr. Hardin, 84, protested as rescuers removed him from the rubble of his memories to a shelter where he could get food and treatment for his Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

But for Mr. Hardin, who fades in and out of lucidity, the worst was not over. A few days ago, he suffered head and other injuries when he fell trying to cross a sidewalk at the Red Cross shelter and was taken to a hospital where he is in serious condition.

Mr. Hardin's ordeal differs only in degree from those of many of the older people who found themselves in harm's way early Aug. 24 as Andrew ground south Florida's fragrant swamps and featureless tracts into a mass of mangled roots, soggy plaster and twisted metal.

With little physical strength or psychological endurance and often with meager savings, the 90,000 elderly of south Dade County were one of the most vulnerable populations in the hurricane's path. Now, two weeks after the nation's costliest natural disaster, many remain in peril.

While thousands of the elderly have sought shelter with friends, relatives or relief agencies, others are clinging to the shreds of their old lives in dangerously damaged homes.

Some hide when the authorities come by; they fear that, if they leave, looters will take what's left of their possessions.

Or they fear entering the new tent cities, which are surrounded by barbed wire for security reasons.

Or they fear being sent to institutions for the elderly.

They had come to Florida, many of them, expecting no more than to be able to finish their lives in a warm and untroubled place.

They had their government checks, their cherished routines of card-playing and gardening, visiting friends and spending hours at senior-citizen centers. Many had carefully arranged to get the health care they needed while they held on to the independence they cherished.

Some will need months to restore the carefully plotted routines of their former lives. Others have lost those routines forever.

"They are at a time in their lives when being at peace and being with their possessions and memories is everything," said Gloria Bullman, an Orlando psychologist who was seeing patients this week in a temporary clinic in Cutler Ridge. Since the hurricane, "they've had none of that."

For as much damage as Andrew inflicted, it could have been far worse for the elderly.

Andrew flattened trailer parks where thousands of the elderly lived, yet because of last-minute evacuations -- some of them forced -- local authorities said that only five older people were killed directly by the storm.

Thirteen others died because of related illnesses or accidents.

Three of the elderly who died were trapped in trailers that they refused to leave. And because in some parks as many as one-third of elderly residents insisted on staying, some authorities believe that many more elderly casualties still could be found.

"The shock of this situation is enough to disorient anyone," said Fran Kramer, director of Dade County's Elderly Services Division.

In the county's hospitals, nursing homes and shelters, some of the elderly "look like zombies, they're so dazed."

South Dade County is an area with many older residents from such places as Cuba, Vietnam and Cambodia who already have had to rebuild their lives once as refugees.

"Some of them are saying, 'I just can't do that again right now,' " Ms. Bullman said.

Because of their physical weakness and their unwillingness to leave, many have ended up in indefinite semi-voluntary imprisonment in their homes.

Still without power, they sit in darkened rooms, beneath damaged walls, amid old photographs and water-damaged keepsakes. Day after day, they mourn their lost lives, yet seem unable to do much to begin new ones.

To add to the misery of those with damaged roofs, it has rained almost every day for nine days.

In such circumstances, the elderly are also in physical danger. Their ceilings or walls can collapse and their floors can give way. When their power is restored, they might be electrocuted by faulty or damaged wiring.

Since the hurricane, two elderly people have fallen to their deaths trying to repair windows, authorities said. Another elderly man had a fatal heart attack trying to trim the damaged trees on his lot and a fourth had a heart attack trying to nail plywood panels on his home.

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