In Fla., storm heightens concern for the elderly

Many flock to shelters as others stay at home

Hurricane Ivan

September 16, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LANARK VILLAGE, Fla. - David R. Joliff Sr. almost died when the last hurricane that blew through Florida merely brushed this Panhandle retirement community.

But the storm was severe enough to knock out power to his oxygen machine. Fortunately, a deliveryman rushed him a fresh supply. Still, the 63-year-old retired vinyl floor salesman suffered for hours alone in the dark, fearing that he wouldn't be found alive.

"When you sit home in the dark by yourself and you don't have oxygen, it's scary," Joliff said.

With deadly Hurricane Ivan bearing down, Joliff decided he wouldn't take a chance this time. He joined thousands of seniors living along the Gulf of Mexico who fled to shelters or homes of family members who live outside the storm's path.

Many flocked to "special-needs" shelters in the Panhandle as health and emergency officials sought to comfort some of their most-vulnerable residents.

Still other seniors - short on money or dreading to leave their houses, pets and belongings behind - chose to brave the storm in their own homes.

Among them was Joliff's neighbor Margaret Jones, 69, who refused to leave the Lanark Village Retirement Community, an old military installation converted to residential housing on the coast south of Tallahassee. The main reason was her mixed-breed puppy, Samson.

"Any place that will take me won't take my dog," Jones said.

She said she has stocked up on portable oxygen and doesn't foresee the kind of problem her neighbor had if the power goes out. He "wasn't prepared," Jones said. "That's what happens. Men are never prepared."

Ivan is the fourth hurricane this year to menace Florida. Bonnie breezed through with little impact, but Charley and Frances scored direct hits, killing about four dozen people and causing billions of dollars in damage.

Ivan could be the most dangerous. Its well-defined eye wall was expected to move ashore overnight near Mobile Bay, just across the state line in Alabama.

But the storm is so huge that hurricane-force winds radiate 100 miles from the eye, and tropical storm warnings stretch out another 200 miles, easily enveloping Florida's Panhandle. Powerful winds and heavy rain are certain to buffet Lanark Village and threaten the low-lying community with flooding.

For miles along the Gulf Coast, electricity is likely to be knocked out, creating life-threatening situations for seniors who rely on mechanical devices such as oxygen tanks and ventilators.

In Florida, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities are required to have emergency plans to ensure that seniors are protected, said Dr. John J. Lanza, director of the Escambia County Health Department in Pensacola, where Ivan was expected to deal a harsh blow.

Every county along the Gulf Coast has special-needs shelters to care for its elderly residents, Lanza said. But the greatest concern, he said, is for those who live on their own.

"The elderly didn't want to leave their homes," he said.

Seniors had to be rescued from their homes after the earlier hurricanes because they didn't have power for their medical devices, Lanza said.

Escambia County's special-needs center is at Pensacola Junior College, where nearly 300 people - 95 percent of them seniors - had rushed for cover by early yesterday as bands of rain began falling on the city. A third of the seniors require oxygen support, Lanza said.

Louise Murray, 74, and her husband, Jack, 76, hurried to the shelter shortly after it opened. She said they did not want to risk their lives by staying in their home in Pensacola Beach.

Joliff similarly wanted to make sure he didn't add to Ivan's death toll, which stood at 68 after the storm's violent passage through the Caribbean. He asked his respiratory therapist to have him evacuated.

"My life depends on that machine," Joliff said. "I can take it off long enough to go to the bathroom and take a shower, but that's about it."

Joliff began using oxygen machines after suffering eight heart attacks and undergoing two open-heart surgeries over the past three years.

Like many others in small Panhandle communities, Joliff struggles to make ends meet. He lives on Social Security disability payments of $1,000 a month, but says he manages. He said he is more concerned about others who have less than he does, can't afford to leave town and must survive on oxygen.

Most of the 1,000 residents in Lanark Village believe its buildings will withstand Ivan because many are old military housing made of brick. The site, formerly known as Camp Gordon Johnson, was a training ground for the D-Day invasion.

But if the bridges close - and they will when the wind reaches 50 mph - and the roads flood, seniors remaining in Lanark Village and along the Gulf Coast could find themselves fighting for their lives.

Leonard C. "Bud" Evans, chief of the St. James-Lanark Fire Department, said his team is keeping a close eye on the retirement village and that the station will serve as a shelter if needed.

"We've got paramedics, first-responders, everything right here," he said.

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