The devastation brought on by Hurricane Charley has been especially painful for an elderly population that is among the largest in the nation. State officials fear that many frail and aging residents have been left susceptible to illness and are going without important medication because of the hurricane, while others have been too stubborn to leave their damaged homes.
The situation has government and private agencies scrambling to get the elderly to air-conditioned places where they can receive their medicine, oxygen and even entertainment.
The state has processed more than 250 people through a temporary shelter for older people at Robarts Arena at the Sarasota County Fairgrounds. They came from nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and private homes in the affected counties.
"We've responded to a lot of hurricanes," said Jennifer Bencie Fairburn, a doctor with the Florida Department of Health. "But this is really a unique situation because of the population in Charlotte County."
Charlotte County has the nation's largest percentage of people older than 65, and the county was especially hard-hit by last week's hurricane. The storm killed 20 people in Florida, and more than 400,000 people remained without power Wednesday.
At the Gulf Breeze federal housing project in Punta Gorda, housing authority director Jean Farino has been trying all week to persuade Mary Foster to leave her roof-damaged apartment.
"I'm not leaving unless the law comes and hogties and takes me," the 62-year-old disabled woman gasped as her cat, Tom, cowered beneath the coffee table. "If I had a family, I'd be with them, believe me."
"What if the ceiling caves in?" Farino protested. "You could be killed."
"That's the chance I've got to take," Foster said. "I'm not leaving."
With thousands of residents still displaced by the hurricane, the exclusive island city of Sanibel was reopened to permanent residents Wednesday for the first time since it was evacuated before the hurricane. Roads had been cleared of debris, but there was no power or drinkable water on the barrier island of about 6,000 residents.
Sanibel Mayor Marty Harrity said most of the damage to the island's homes was cosmetic, involving missing shingles and shutters.
"People are smiling - they're getting the opportunity to come back and see their homes," Harrity said by phone.
Federal aid continued to pour into the state, and Gov. Jeb Bush announced the creation of a disaster relief fund to help victims. He said the fund has received $1.1 million in donations so far.
The state's financial obstacles are considerable. Insurers are likely to pay an estimated $7.4 billion in claims for damage to homes, businesses and personal possession such as cars, Insurance Information Institute chief economist Bob Hartwig said Wednesday. The estimate doesn't include uninsured property and flood damage or huge agricultural losses.
The hurricane likely will cause a 20 percent loss for the state's citrus industry this year.
Charley will likely go down as the second most expensive U.S. hurricane after Andrew, which caused $15.5 billion in insured losses, he said. State officials had estimated earlier that damage to insured homes alone could be as much as $11 billion.
Max Rothman, executive director of The Center on Aging at Florida International University, who studied the effects of Hurricane Andrew on the older population, said the elderly residents in the hurricane's path could face tough challenges in the weeks ahead.
"There is an enhanced impact on older people because of the dislocation," Rothman said. "It is harder for them to deal physically with the changes brought about by the hurricane. The health concerns can be dramatic."
Officials are worried because many of the elderly insist on living in what is left of their homes, to wait for insurance adjusters and ward off looters.
But for those who don't want to face the elements, volunteers at the arena/shelter in Sarasota County have brought in everything from board games to clowns. Some people have even brought by dogs and cats for "pet therapy."
"I'm telling you, the people have been absolutely fantastic," said Dorothy McKeone, a Port Charlotte widow, who has been hospitalized six times since this last year with a racing heart and anemia. "I mean, you sneeze and they run over wanting to give you a tissue."
McKeone has not been back home, but neighbors say it is a total wreck. Aside from the physical infirmities of age, McKeone said older hurricane victims have another enemy - time.
"At, 81, you don't have too many years to start over after you've lost everything," she said. "I don't know where I'm going or what I'm going to do."
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