No Power, No Place to Go for Thousands of Elderly After Irma

by | September 14, 2017

By Kyra Gurney, Alex Harris and Daniel Chang

Stranded without power in the wake of Hurricane Irma, thousands of South Florida seniors have found themselves trapped -- in healthcare facilities, affordable housing apartments and planned retirement communities -- without access to elevators, air conditioning, telephones and even medical devices.

An inconvenience for many, days-long power outages pose a danger to the elderly, particularly those who are frail, a threat underscored Wednesday by the deaths of eight residents at a Hollywood nursing home that had lost power during the storm.

"It's criminal what they're doing," said Sonia Suarez, 72, president of the residents association for Martin Fine Villas, a Miami-Dade County-run public housing center with 62 disabled tenants.

Suarez uses a wheelchair, and she has been unable to recharge her electric wheelchair since the storm knocked out power to the center. Instead, she has been relying on a neighbor to push her wheelchair as she checks on other residents.

"There are a lot of people whose health is getting worse," she said, "because they don't have electricity."

At least five Martin Fine residents have gone to the hospital since the storm hit, Suarez said. She was also worried about those who remained in the building.

"People are going to die here," she said.

Since Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys on Sunday, dozens of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, where elderly and disabled patients require around-the-clock care, have relied on backup generators, according to healthcare regulators.

Senior housing complexes are not healthcare facilities, and their residents do not need constant medical attention. But their elderly residents can be vulnerable nonetheless, with many on fixed incomes and some relying on electrically powered medical devices, such as oxygen machines.

At a handful of senior housing complexes in Miami-Dade and Broward visited by Miami Herald reporters on Wednesday, hundreds of elderly residents reported being stranded without power -- from Pembroke Pines to Little Havana, Hollywood and Coconut Grove.

At Gibson Plaza Apartments, a senior housing project in west Coconut Grove, Barbara Grundy sat on her walker in the shade of an oak sapling trying to catch a break from the heat on Wednesday morning.

With the thermometer pushing 90 degrees, Grundy, 84, said she had evacuated on Saturday ahead of Hurricane Irma and returned on Tuesday when power was restored to the building.

But as she sat alone, Grundy did not know how she would get back upstairs to her third-floor apartment without someone to help her.

"We don't have no elevator," she said. "No TV, no telephone and no elevator. We need that elevator bad."

Gibson Plaza residents said they lost power on Saturday, but the building's management company, Professional Management Inc., shut down the elevators the day before, on Sept. 8, according to notices placed on residents' front doors.

On Wednesday, a maintenance worker at the building said the elevators were not functioning because they needed to interface with the telephone service, a claim repeated by the building's co-developer, Jihad Rashid, CEO of Collaborative Development Corporation in Coconut Grove.

But later, PMI said management did not shut down the elevators in the five-story building until Saturday morning, and that the elevator had malfunctioned after service was restored.

"The elevator maintenance company was promptly called to repair the elevator," said Syrie Ortiz, PMI vice president, in a written statement. "In the meantime, our management team is in touch with residents directly and they have been asked to contact either on-site management or the management company home office with any special needs, since the office in the building is without phone or internet service."

At Robert King High Towers, the senior housing complex in Little Havana has been without power since Thursday.

Many of the roughly 315 residents had eaten very little since the storm. Some had gone days without oxygen or medication. Apartments had flooded after water seeped under doors, and only one of the building's four elevators was working, though sporadically, and nearly everyone was struggling to get up and down the stairs.

The building has 14 stories.

Maria Campos, president of the neighbors' association, said many residents chose to stay despite warnings to evacuate. County officials had tried to shelter those with chronic health conditions, she said, but only about 20 to 30 residents chose to leave.

"It's been very difficult. I've never seen things like this in the years I've lived," said Yolanda Nuñez, 77, who has emphysema and had no power for the inhaler she uses to take her medication.

The cafeteria at Robert King High had been closed since Thursday. On Wednesday, the Little Havana Activity Center delivered 150 boxes of food, but they were restricted to those on the cafeteria list. Miami-Dade workers also arrived at the apartment complex to hand out 4,600 bags of ice.

Gloria Pacheco had been able to refill her prescriptions before the storm, but said all of the food in her refrigerator had spoiled due to the power outage. She went two days without eating, she said, before Miami officials delivered food and water on Tuesday.

At nearby Martin Fine Villas, no power meant no functioning medical equipment.

Cristobal Garcia, 67, sat in his apartment, shirtless, in an electric wheelchair that was nearly out of juice. The only light in his apartment came from the open door. Without electricity, Garcia was unable to run his oxygen machine, and he tried desperately to keep his insulin cool with ice.

"It's already warm," he said, opening the refrigerator to expose a shelf full of insulin bottles.

At the Hollywood Beach Retirement Home in Broward, administrator Mila Goldin said the power may not return until Sunday. Already, she said, two residents -- one on dialysis and another whose leg had swollen rapidly -- had been evacuated to the hospital.

On Wednesday, the retirement home received a generator that Goldin hopes can power two to three rooms. But Goldin is not sure that will be enough.

As she checked on patients, their brows slicked with sweat, Goldin said they could not wait until Sunday to have power restored.

"I don't know what's going to happen with them til Sunday," she said. "Look at them, they're getting weaker by the day."

At Century Village in Pembroke Pines, power remained out for more than half of the 15,000 residents of the planned retirement community, one of the largest in the state.

Elderly residents are trapped in second-, third- and fourth-floor apartments, with no air conditioning or access to food.

"These people are basically prisoners in their own apartments," said Charlie Dodge, the long-time city manager for Pembroke Pines. "These are very vulnerable people."

Dodge said the city set up a command center at Century Village, where city officials handed out ice, water and food to residents. Pembroke Pines police also have been going door to door with building managers to check on stranded residents. They deliver about 8,000 hot meals a day.

"We're there in full force and we'll remain there until power is restored," Dodge said. "We're trying our best to stay on top of it."

Florida Power & Light told employees electricity could be restored as soon as Saturday, said Larry Bomse, who runs social media and the website for the retirement community. That leaves thousands of residents who rely on the elevators to get around stuck inside their apartments, fielding calls from worried family and friends.

"I got 300 phone calls yesterday and I'm already up to 300 today," Bomse said Wednesday afternoon. "People just want their power back as soon as possible."

(c)2017 Miami Herald