Katrina Struck Some Elderly Hard - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Katrina Struck Some Elderly Hard

Associated Press Writers

When Katrina's fury bore down on the Gulf Coast, the old people were the least able to run. Some could barely walk.

Some were left in despair at a rural Mississippi school. Others drowned in a Louisiana nursing home. The lucky ones, the tough ones, got out. And now, wrenched from their familiar routines, they may have a harder time coping with the aftermath than younger victims, experts say.

The story of older people and Katrina does contain uplifting sights, like the elderly woman carried off a chartered jet from Baton Rouge by her son in San Diego last Sunday.

But consider what happened late last week at an underpass in Metairie, La., when a man tried to get his 78-year-old father, who's blind, and his 75-year-old mother, who's crippled by arthritis, onto a bus.

"I couldn't get them on because the young people, the healthy people were pushing and fighting to get on the bus. I couldn't put them in that situation," said the man, Bruce Barnes of New Orleans.

That happened time and again as buses appeared, filled up, and left. Even when a bus was set aside for the elderly and disabled, the workers wouldn't let both Barnes and his 62-year-old aunt accompany the parents. Rather than leave the elderly couple alone on the bus or the aunt behind, all four waited some more.

Finally a doctor got them onto a helicopter to the airport, where they boarded a plane for Austin, Texas.

And consider Bay High School in Bay St. Louis, Miss. It was an unofficial shelter turned cesspool, the sight of which Gary Turner, Trudy Roberts and Felix Ruiz said should be considered a crime.

The three strangers became a rescue team of sorts when they fled to the high school themselves and found people in their 70s, 80s and 90s wallowing in their own waste on the auditorium floors. They had been brought to the school and abandoned, most unable to move without help.

"Rats wouldn't even go in there," said Turner, of Bay St. Louis.

A 90-year-old woman named Mildred told Turner she wanted to die, but he wouldn't let her. He helped her to a potty chair someone carried in, then slowly moved her outside.

"Someone just dumped them there," he said angrily. "Most of them needed to be in the hospital."

At night, as the older people tried to sleep, they became prey. The younger, the stronger and the ruthless came two nights in a row, stealing their money and medications.

"People have no respect for the elderly," Turner said. "They need to get a better plan. You can't put people in here who are on oxygen, who can't walk, who can't take care of themselves."

Ruiz says he went to a nearby hospital for help but found none. Then he went to the National Guard. Finally, on Friday night, someone took the older people to what he hopes was a cleaner, safer place.

The portable toilets arrived then, too, far too late.

Ruiz helped carry one of the women to the ambulance.

"She kissed my cheek and said, 'Thank you,'" he says, tears welling. "That's the only reason I came back to this hell hole."

The school is in Hancock County, and Rich Nicorvo of Coral Springs, Fla., says he believes the county, a largely rural place with just 50,000 residents, will learn from this experience. A police captain and volunteer at the emergency operations center there, he's worked five hurricanes and has seen horror stories like the one at the school before.

He said it's unfair to blame local officials. "These poor folks ... would not have the money for training and shelters. They don't have the resources," he said.

The story was even grimmer just outside New Orleans. Thirty people died at a flooded nursing home in Chalmette, and state Rep. Nita Hutter said the staff left the elderly residents behind in their beds.

Even after older people make it to safety, far from their destroyed communities, their troubles may not be over.

Experts say they may have a harder time than younger people in dealing with being uprooted, in part because they're often being wrenched from the comforting routine of neighborhoods they've lived in for decades and maybe hadn't left for years.

Older evacuees do have one thing in their favor, experts say. A lifetime of living may have made them tougher.

"I was in (Hurricane) Betsy, I was in Camille, I was in all of it. And I'm still here now," Josephine Bingham, 68, said on a bus taking her from New Orleans to Dallas.

Terrell Coleman, 66, of Moss Point, Miss., was more succinct at an outpatient medical clinic in Houston: "I grew up with hurricanes. I'm used to them."

Dr. Carmel Bitondo Dyer, a geriatric physician and associate professor of medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, has heard plenty of comments like that while working at the Astrodome.

"Some of the evacuees said to me, 'I made it through two world wars, I can make it through this.'... In some ways I think older people have seen a lot, have been through a lot. They're more resilient," she said in a telephone interview this week.

Of course, she added, "the people who made it here are tough, and they're the survivors... I suspect the dead bodies the evacuees are describing, many of them, we'll find out were frail elderly who couldn't sit in the sun for 48 hours."

Even so, many evacuees were in a confused state when they first came off the buses, Dyer said, because they couldn't get to their medicine or they suffered from medical problems such as dehydration and infections. Many were admitted to hospitals.

Dyer said some older evacuees at the Astrodome didn't have relatives to help them get to food or the toilet, and some can't hear the loudspeaker announcements or see well enough to know where to get their medicines.

Another evacuee shepherded seniors into one area of the Astrodome so they could be together, and social workers are checking on the needs of those without family. Some are being placed in private homes or other kinds of residences, according to the level of care they need, Dyer said.

In Dallas, at the Reunion Arena shelter, 74-year-old Gladys Smith of New Orleans was disoriented and in "very, very terrible" spirts, said her daughter.

"One night she went to the restroom, and when I woke up she was walking into the wall," Patricia Smith said. "She couldn't find her place on the floor."

Dr. Dan Blazer, a Duke University psychiatrist who heads the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, said the relocation Katrina has forced on people is likely harder on those who are older.

Many of these people had lived in their homes for many years and were expecting only one more move, he said. "An unexpected move is extremely stressful for them."

Linda Bertoniere, a 65-year-old retired restaurant manager who was sleeping on a pallet of plywood at a warehouse in Louisiana last week, said she wanted to leave her demolished neighborhood. But she sounded resigned about her future.

"When you're my age," she said, "it's just too hard to start over again."


Associated Press writers Matt Sedensky in New Orleans, Juan A. Lozano in Houston, Sheila Flynn in Dallas, and Liz Austin in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.

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