Hurricane Ian was deadly for the elderly, people with chronic illnesses

Thomas Billings Jr. and his wife Sarah decided to ride out Hurricane Ian in the family room of their Naples ranch home, near Edgewater Beach.

About two hours after the storm hit, Billings was returning to fetch something from the bedroom when he found his wife lying face down, according to a Naples Police Department report.

As the floodwaters entered the home, he moved Sarah, 73, into the bedroom. But the 79-year-old man did not have the strength to lift her onto the bed, the report said. The man was only able to escape the rising waters by carrying his wife and himself out onto the back lanai.

He survived, but Sarah drowned, a death the medical examiner concluded was complicated by a heart attack.

Florida has strict laws that require nursing homes and assisted living facilities to plan for disasters like hurricanes. But few rules exist to protect the growing number of elderly people with chronic illnesses who live at home, including some who rely on electrically powered medical equipment such as dialysis and oxygen machines.

Hurricane Ian provided a brutal lesson in how vulnerable this population is to the harsh conditions during and after a major storm.

Florida medical examiners have so far linked 112 deaths to Hurricane Ian. Almost 60% of them were human aged 65 or over. Chronic medical conditions such as heart attacks and respiratory diseases contributed to a third of the reported deaths, records show.

The average age of the dead is 67 years.

“There’s no one who’s required to make sure they’re evacuating or that their home environment is going to protect them,” said Lindsey Peterson, an assistant professor who conducts disaster preparedness research at the University of South Florida’s School of Aging Research. “They are much more vulnerable and we see that in these statistics.

Connected: How the storm kills: Hurricane Ian showed Florida why we were told to leave

Reports suggest that many would still be alive if they were evacuated.

Nine people died because the power outage meant they couldn’t operate oxygen or dialysis equipment, including a 70-year-old diabetic in Charlotte County who went a week without dialysis.

Delays by 911 responders in reaching patients due to the storm were cited as contributing factors in five other deaths. One was a 79-year-old woman in Orange County whose hip fracture surgery was delayed because the hospital she was taken to had no running water.

Even some who survived the worst of the storm later succumbed to its effects.

Four residents suffered heart attacks and died while trying to clear debris from the storm, according to reports. A 58-year-old man with pre-existing heart problems collapsed and died after climbing seven floors of a Naples apartment building where he and his wife were taking shelter. The elevator had stopped working after the lobby flooded.

Trends show that the number of elderly people who receive treatment at home will continue to increase. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services estimates that home care spending will reach $201 billion by 2028, a 73% increase over 2020.

More must be done at the state, local and federal levels to protect this population as hurricanes increase in intensity, Peterson said. Home health centers and dialysis centers are required to have plans for post-storm operations, she said.

Other states, including Ohio, have gone further with laws that require home health workers to check in with their clients before a disaster and offer help and advice.

Those with health issues can turn to special needs shelters that include generators for power medical equipment and are equipped with nurses.

But it’s not always easy to convince people and their caregivers to commit to staying in a shelter, Peterson said. Older people with dementia may feel anxious in a busy shelter where there is always light and noise.

“People associate home with their safety, especially the elderly,” she said. “How do we convince them that this is no longer safe for you?”

Beulah Stang, a sixth-grade math teacher at Johns Hopkins Middle School, carries her pillow and suitcase into the school, which was used as a special needs shelter during Hurricane Ian. The shelter’s capacity is over 700 people. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties maintain a registry of those who have special medical needs and may struggle during an emergency such as a hurricane.

Pinellas counts 2,643 people on the registry, which includes information about their evacuation zones and whether they have their own transportation. About 4,000 people are on the Hillsborough register, with more than 1,600 listed as needing transport to evacuate.

Both counties operated special shelters during Ian with approximately 400 people and 110 caregivers staying at three shelters in Pinellas. Hillsborough houses about 400 people and 40 caregivers in five shelters, officials said.

Shelters are intended as a last resort for people without the resources or time to travel to a hotel or stay with friends or relatives, said Ryan Pedigo, Hillsborough’s director of public health preparedness. But he acknowledged that some – including those with medical needs – would not take advantage of the free facilities and that many people were waiting until it was too late to evacuate.

“You can’t wait until eight hours before landing for that to happen. People should take the initiative to leave early and evacuate,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s complacency or if people just don’t want to go to a shelter.”

Connected: Hurricane Ian was supposed to make landfall in Tampa Bay. What happened?

Joy Weidinger’s husband, Douglas Weidinger Sr., 58, was named among those killed in Hurricane Ian.

The 79-year-old man from Punta Gorda, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asbestosis, relies on an oxygen concentrator, a device that provides oxygen-rich air.

When the power went out, he switched to portable oxygen cylinders the couple had ordered for the storm.

But his health declined, his wife said, in part because he was so stressed by the hurricane. He died on September 29, one day after the storm made landfall.

The Charlotte County Medical Examiner cited the power outage as a contributing factor in his death.

“We connected it to the hub, but by the time we did it was too late,” she said. “We all have time to go.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coverage of Hurricane Jan

HOW CAN I HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help victims of Hurricane Ian.

FEMA: Florida residents affected by Ian can now apply for assistance from FEMA. This is how.

THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

QUESTIONS AFTER THE STORM: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help for fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

THE TIME: Hurricane Ian was supposed to make landfall in Tampa Bay. What happened?

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Prepare and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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