WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - With rolling aluminum oxygen tanks and shiny silver wheelchairs, 500 elderly and infirm residents hobbled into a special-needs emergency shelter at the South Florida Fairgrounds yesterday to seek refuge from colossal Hurricane Frances, which is threatening to smack the coast with record force.
The area's most vulnerable residents brought their medicines, pillows and caregivers in an effort to maintain their health and some level of comfort in an enormous exhibit hall crammed with neat rows of folding beds and bright yellow portable bathrooms.
"When you have a different situation, everything is a little harder," said Elaine Defrancis, 75, who arrived at the shelter yesterday with her husband, Joe, who relies on a wheelchair for mobility. "I knew we would have to come here."
Palm Beach County, which is known for its assisted-living homes and retirement villages clustered along the coast, opened the shelter Thursday. Already, two patients have been rushed away in ambulances because of heart failure, officials said.
"With the stress of the storm and the anxiety of coming here, some of their conditions deteriorate," said Robert J. Trenschel, the shelter's head doctor. "When you remove them from their home, and they are in a shelter with 500 people, there are a lot of issues."
The eye of the storm is expected to hit the northern edge of Palm Beach, but the entire county is bracing for hurricane-force winds that are likely to topple trees and homes and hurl any unsecured debris into the air, potentially turning it into a lethal projectile.
Almost all stores in Palm Beach were closed by 5 p.m., most of them boarded up with plywood.
The county has more than 270,000 residents older than 65, and an "unusual concentration" of elderly single people, according to the U.S. Census - which means droves of residents are in need of assistance during emergency times.
More than 18,000 of the county's 1.2 million people are camped out in the county's 23 shelters, but there is only one shelter equipped with medical staff and prepared to handle hundreds of special-needs residents. The elderly and infirm at the fairgrounds shelter had to pre-register months ago in order to get a slot.
Defrancis said that when the van came Thursday to take her and her husband from their home in the evacuated area of Jupiter to the shelter, her husband refused to go. After being partially paralyzed in a 1990 stroke that also left him unable to speak, Joe Defrancis does not like to leave the house.
"It took us all night and all morning to convince him," Elaine Defrancis said. "I finally told him to start thinking about me. With no electric or water, how would we survive?"
Joe Defrancis, who sat outside the fairgrounds shelter during the calm before the storm, had an unhappy expression on his face.
When asked whether he was doing OK, he shrugged a shoulder and looked up to the sky.
His wife said she had nobody to help her board up her house with plywood, and imagines it will sustain serious damage. The couple has no children and no able-bodied friends who could spare some time.
"If we had stayed at home, we would have been comfortable until the roof went," Defrancis said.
She is trying to make the best of it and pointed out that the lunch of turkey sandwiches, vegetable soup and vanilla pudding wasn't so bad.
"And the coffee is terrific," she added, nudging her husband in an effort to make him laugh.
Nearby, Harry Stevenson, 71, rolled by in his wheelchair, led by his golden Labrador retriever service dog, Martina.
"Hotels only have a few handicapped rooms, and they're full," said Stevenson, who had both legs amputated after he suffered complications from diabetes.
He said if there were no special-needs shelter, he would "have to sit home and pray."
Several hospitals near the coast discharged patients to other facilities, and residents in many assisted-living centers took chartered buses to northern cities.
St. Mary's Medical Center, which is on the highest point of land in Palm Beach, took 62 patients from Good Samaritan Medical Center, which closed down Thursday. St. Mary's also took pregnant women and children who are medically fragile.
Don Chester, associate administrator for the hospital, said his biggest concern is pharmacies.
"Our patients can't leave if they can't find an open pharmacy," Chester said.
Waiting at home
Many elderly and infirm people stayed in their homes, believing that they will be safe in their bathrooms, where porcelain tubs cemented to the floor are viewed as the strongest part of a house. They were also hoping that the news media were over-hyping the storm.
"I'm really independent here," said Arlyne Zafran, 69, who lives in Lake Worth and uses a walker to get around because of severe arthritis. "At the shelter, maybe I can't get my needs met. There are a few bathrooms for how many people? At this age, we all need the bathroom a lot."
Zafran and her husband, Frank, 78, took the door off their shower and put an air mattress in the bathtub.
In their tiny, lavender-colored bathroom, they stocked bottles of water, a battery-powered radio, an electric light and a six-pack of vanilla Ensure, a liquid meal replacement.
"We don't expect to be here for more than a day or two," Arlyne Zafran said. "It's going to be an adventure."