When the storms hit Alabama in late April, some older adults came up from their basements to find neighbors' cars rammed through the side of their homes by tornadoes. For some, that signaled a time to hunker down — not to reach out to the government for help.
Irene Collins, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Senior Services, is worried that older people are not registering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which provides disaster relief assistance. "Last week the numbers were low," she says. "We did not have as many as we anticipated."
In Tuscaloosa County, only 250 older adults or people with disabilities have registered at FEMA disaster recovery centers. Disaster relief leaders say they expected to see numbers in the low thousands. Collins says she is concerned that older people may find themselves stuck with bills for repairs that their insurance does not cover.
The Alabama Department of Senior Services is one of a number of organizations working alongside FEMA as it scrambles to get in touch with shocked storm victims and begin the rebuilding process. They're seeing it all, including older people who have had their dentures sucked from their mouths by the twisters.
Self-reliance gets in the way
Collins says she is having the same trouble registering that her colleagues in other states have run up against in the past: Older people often think somebody else is worse off.
"We had a senior who came to a community assistance area, and they had clothes and toothbrushes," Collins says. "The woman only took one pair of jeans and one shirt. She had nothing. And we said, 'We have plenty. Here, take something else.' The woman said, 'Oh no, somebody else will need it more than I do.' "
Field workers and local government officials say the attitude seems to be generational, stemming from a sense of pride in making it on one's own. "A lot of these seniors have lived through hard times before," says Lauranne James, the lead case manager for Medicaid waivers for the Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments, who has been on the ground in some of the areas the tornadoes hit hardest. "They made it, and they did it without government assistance."
Another issue is the effects of displacement. "There's not a lot of available rental property," says Keith Jones, executive director of the Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments. "We have a lot of homes that were totally destroyed. These folks who have lost their homes have gone to family members out of the disaster area. They're not signing up." He also added that home mailboxes were destroyed, which prevented residents from receiving notices about FEMA assistance.
James and Jones also fear that lack of access worsens the problem. Older adults may not have access to their computers, or local computer centers may have been knocked out. "So you run into a little bit of a communications problem where all we have is the local radio stations, which are in other cities," James says.