Hardest Hit

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on November 15, 2005

(by Jamie Dean, WorldMag.com) DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – Hurricane Wilma’s most vulnerable victims–thousands of retirement community residents–are still trying to recover. “For the ones who have no family around…it can be severely crippling.”
(by Jamie Dean, WorldMag.com) DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — When Rosemary Jurin lost power in her small condo at Kings Point retirement community in Delray Beach, Fla., during Hurricane Wilma’s landfall late last month, she immediately thought of one thing: the eight bottles of insulin in her refrigerator that would soon begin to spoil. “Those little bottles are my lifeline,” the 78-year-old diabetic told WORLD nine days after Wilma ripped through southeast Florida. Mrs. Jurin is one of some 3.2 million Florida residents who lost power after Hurricane Wilma hit the state Oct. 24, causing billions of dollars of damage and claiming 14 lives. Nearly three weeks later, more than 1,200 people remained in shelters.

The day after the storm’s landfall, scores of able-bodied Floridians began spreading blue tarps over crushed roofs and dragging mounds of tree debris to curbs, while waiting for electricity to return. Meanwhile, scores of elderly residents living in retirement communities and assisted living facilities hunkered down in the dark, waiting for someone to help them survive.

With some 3.9 million residents over the age of 60 (comprising 20 percent of the population), Florida has the highest proportion of elderly people in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 800,000 residents are over the age of 80. Tens of thousands live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, while thousands more live in condos or apartments at dozens of retirement communities across the state.

When a hurricane like Wilma rips through Florida, the older residents are often hardest hit. No electricity means no way out of high-rise buildings for those dependent on elevators. It also means oxygen machines won’t run, and food quickly spoils in refrigerators. Debris and dangerous road conditions make it difficult for many elderly people to venture out for necessities like food and drinkable water, as well as refills on medicine.

For the thousands of elderly residents in retirement communities across southern Florida, Hurricane Wilma was a particularly hard hit. At the 10,000-resident Century Village in Boca Raton, more than 1,000 folks stood in line for more than two hours to receive food, water, and ice. When a Red Cross truck arrived, some residents, many over 80, helped unload boxes of meals. Other residents of Century Village sat stranded on upper-level floors with leaking roofs and stifling mildew.

“This can be very crippling for them,” says Captain Don DeLucia of Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue. “For the ones who have no family around, and no one else to look after them, it can be severely crippling.”

Hurricane Wilma crippled many of the 12,000 residents of Kings Point retirement community, where Mrs. Jurin has lived alone since May. The storm crushed roofs, shattered windows, and tore away screened-in porches, while scattering debris that blocked many side roads. Since Kings Point is not an assisted living facility, residents fended for themselves and hoped that help would arrive.

Mrs. Jurin was still waiting nine days later. “There’s no organization here. . . . I haven’t seen anybody come to check on us.” Like most residents, Mrs. Jurin, who has difficulty walking and doesn’t drive, had no electricity for seven days. She also had a limited supply of food and water. She has no family nearby, and her only help came from an Israeli man visiting his parents next door; he helped Mrs. Jurin obtain medicine and food and brought her hot meals cooked on a camping stove.

“I kept hearing rumors of ice being passed out, but I had no idea how to find it,” she says. The Red Cross did set up a distribution site at Kings Point, giving food, water, and ice to hundreds of residents who knew about the site and could get there on their own. The organization also set up sites across Palm Beach County and had served 1.2 million meals in the county by Nov. 5, according to its website.

Additional help came from Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue, which assessed Kings Point for damage and delivered ice and water, according to Capt. DeLucia. The captain says Emergency Management Services in Palm Beach received nearly 4,000 calls in the first three days following the hurricane. Nearly half of the calls came from elderly people, calling with “everything from broken limbs to cardiac arrest.”

Some Kings Point residents who couldn’t venture out for themselves found help from another source: local synagogues. The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach estimates that there are more than 700,000 Jews in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties, with many living in retirement communities.

Bernard Morwitz is president of Temple Emeth, a 2,000-member synagogue less than a mile from Kings Point. He says the temple’s membership consists nearly entirely of senior citizens: “I’m 70 years old, and I’m one of the young ones.” Mr. Morwitz, who paces through the office hallways wearing a small brown yarmulke on his head, is busy arranging the synagogue’s relief efforts: “We have a lot of people in Kings Point who have really been hurt.”

Mr. Morwitz says before the hurricane hit, the synagogue had been collecting food for the needy during the Jewish holidays: “Now we have the needy right here.” Mr. Morwitz is contacting anyone from the temple who might need help, and Temple Emeth’s rabbi is visiting members and delivering relief supplies.

Temple Emeth is helping outsiders as well. When Enrique Zuanetto, director of a local soup kitchen, pulls up into the temple’s driveway with his empty white van, Mr. Morwitz tells volunteers to pack it with food from collection bins. Mr. Zuanetto is relieved: “Our donations dried up after the hurricane.”

A half mile down the road, Jeffrey Willens, administrator of Temple Sinai, has been calling the elderly members of his temple as well. In the days after Wilma, Mr. Willens and temple president Bob Goodman huddled in an office with no electricity to make lists of anyone who might need help. About half of the 400 families in the synagogue are elderly, he says. The temple has provided anything members might need. “In some cases they just needed some human contact,” says Mr. Willens, “so we provided that too.”

Back at Kings Point, Betty Garfinkel says human contact was one thing she missed most in the days after the hurricane. Mrs. Garfinkel–a New York native who will only say she is “over 65”–has lived alone in a two-bedroom condo in the community since moving here after her husband’s death 24 years ago. She’s weathered several hurricanes, but says: “This is the worst one. Everything was howling and blowing. I was terrified.”

Mrs. Garfinkel’s condo sustained little damage, but she was unable to get out of the community for several days due to debris. She says she sat in her condo each day and waited for nightfall: “I only had my radio for company.” On this day, she sits on a short bench under a brown tent, waiting for a bus to take her to the store. She’s glad she can get out for herself now, saying “not many people came to offer help” after the hurricane hit.

A full 12 days after Wilma ripped through the complex, Kings Point staff walked through the community to check on residents and assess damage to individual units, according to the Sun-Sentinel. Workers from social service agencies who accompanied the staff found severe water damage, roof damage, and rat infestations in some units. Palm Beach Fire-Rescue found the body of an 81-year-old man who had died of natural causes sometime after Hurricane Wilma struck. Kings Point staff did not return calls from WORLD seeking comment.

Capt. DeLucia thinks “a majority” of retirement communities in Palm Beach don’t have good plans in place for dealing with disasters: “They may be set up to do everything else in-house, like transportation and recreation, but when a disaster happens, what are they going to do?”

Mrs. Garfinkel says it would be simple for anyone to help at places like Kings Point after a disaster: “Just go around and ask people if they need help. That’s all. . . . They can’t give us lights, but they can give us a little help and a little company.”

Copyright 2005 WORLD Magazine, Nov. 19, 2005, Reprinted here with permission from World Magazine.  Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.