Elderly Floridians prepare for hurricane season

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Charlotte Martin knows how devastating a major hurricane can be. Martin, 77, and her 80-year-old husband have been through several big storms over decades of living in the Pensacola area.

The next time a major hurricane or tropical storm approaches, the couple plans to head north to stay with their daughter in Atlanta and they have their emergency supplies ready to take with them in case they get stuck on the road.

“Flashlights, kerosene lamp, non-perishable food, we will take all of that with us,” she said. The couple also has family living nearby and a solid network of friends through their church to help out in the aftermath of a storm.

“We’ve gone without electricity for many, many days after storms,” she said. “The cleanup, the heat, all of it just drains us and it’s exhausting.”

But experts say a lot of state’s 3.2 million residents 65 or older — about 1 in 5 Floridians — are not well prepared for hurricane season, which starts June 1. Many of them have recently relocated to Florida for retirement and it has been nearly 10 years since a major hurricane hit the state. State emergency officials say all Floridians and especially those who are older or have health issues need to have a hurricane plan in place well before any storm approaches.

“Our message for people is prepare, prepare, prepare,” said Shannon Knowles, spokeswoman for Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs.

For more than a decade, Knowles’ agency has worked with emergency officials throughout the state to publish an annual hurricane preparedness guide for elderly Floridians. The guide, which can be found online, is distributed statewide in both English and Spanish. It has two dozen pages of detailed information about what seniors can do before during and after a storm to help ensure their comfort and safety.

Among the many tips in the guide: evacuate early; register with local emergency officials if you have health or mobility issues; make a plan ahead of time for your pets; stay in touch with family even if they do not live in the area; and consider buying a weather radio.

The elderly are among the most vulnerable in hurricanes in part because many have health issues that make it difficult to ride out a storm, said David Bruns, spokesman for AARP Florida.

“It doesn’t occur to a lot of people to think about what to do in a disaster until they are in the middle of one,” he said. “Lots of people who are 50 plus are fine as long as they have running water, electrical power and air conditioning. If they lose power and have to walk up and down stairs in 95-degree heat, things start deteriorating.”

Among the key things that older Floridians need to do to get ready for hurricane season is to make sure they have sufficient supply of their medications ahead of time, he said.

Seniors who can leave town on their own need to evacuate well before a storm hits and make sure they have what they need with them, rather than getting caught in a chaotic exodus right before a storm, he said.

“If you have to evacuate, evacuate only as far as you need to go to be safe,” he said. “You don’t need to go 500 miles away; you can go 100 miles and you are out of the area where the storm has a major impact.”

Another key for emergency survival – reaching out to others in the community, he said. Seniors who have solid networks of friends, family, community or church groups tend do better in emergencies, Bruns said.

For seniors who are more isolated, Bruns recommended talking with their physicians about their emergency plans.

Studies done after Super Storm Sandy showed that seniors with strong support networks and community links tended to better than those without, he said.

During Sandy, AARP New York encouraged people to check in on elderly family, friends and neighbors, said Suzanne Towns, a spokeswoman for AARP New York.

After Sandy, Towns said the agency has encouraged seniors to build their social networks and strengthen their emergency plans.

“Sometimes we don’t talk about disasters until right before or after they hit, but planning is crucial,” she said. “Gather your resources and have a plan.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.