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For Seniors, Storm Evacuation Orders Bring Particular Set Of Difficulties


Now, why is it that when a hurricane evacuation order goes out, some people remain behind, particularly elderly people? NPR's Rebecca Hersher has been asking in Charleston, S.C.


DIXIE CHICKS: (Singing) I know how to make you forget her.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: In 600 feet, turn left onto King Street.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: By the time I pulled up to the Ansonborough House building on Wednesday, downtown Charleston had been under mandatory evacuation for days.


HERSHER: These are independent living apartments. Judith Allen was standing outside in the light rain, chatting with her friends. She's lived in the building for about 14 years.

JUDITH ALLEN: There's 79 residents, and I'm going to say that about 20% are incapacitated.

HERSHER: Judith says almost everyone in the building is still here, even though the fire department went door to door warning people they'd be on their own if they stayed. Judith and her neighbor Clara stayed because they say they're healthy and they've ridden out storms before.

But they say a lot of their neighbors are staying for the opposite reason - a litany of ailments that makes it hard to leave, especially for a slow-moving, wet storm like Dorian that could force you to be away from your home for days and days.

ALLEN: We have one lady that's deaf...

CLARA: But the rest of us forget it.

ALLEN: ...One guy that - isn't Mr. Chisholm blind?

CLARA: He's pretty much blind.

ALLEN: Yeah.

CLARA: I would say he's legally blind.

HERSHER: Clara is a pastor, and she has a car, so even though she's in her 70s, she is the de facto caretaker for a lot of people here.

ALLEN: He's beat cancer four times.

HERSHER: She took one woman to a dialysis appointment that morning. Someone else called while we were talking.


CLARA: Probably one of my riders. Hey.

ALLEN: Yeah, it's one of her riders.

HERSHER: Storms like this one can be particularly dangerous for elderly people. Sue Anne Bell is an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Michigan. She studies how seniors are affected by disasters.

SUE ANNE BELL: We often think of disasters as immediate emergencies, but what, really, I see more of is people with chronic medical conditions that need routine care that they are not able to get.

HERSHER: Bell helped develop a poll that came out this week that looked at how prepared elderly Americans are for disasters. It found some good news. Most people over 50 have enough food, water and medication to last a week. But elderly people are also more vulnerable to storms.

BELL: Around 9% were using medical devices that require electricity, such as maybe an oxygen concentrator. And only about a quarter of those had a backup power source.

HERSHER: Judith has about a dozen neighbors who are in that situation, relying on oxygen, which is really, really stressful.

ALLEN: It affects them catastrophically. They just panic. They're - you know, and I can't blame them, you know?

HERSHER: For now, she's hoping the power doesn't go out. And if it does, she knows she'll get frantic calls for help.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News, Charleston, S.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.

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