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Volunteers needed for hurricane preparedness in Florida


• Hurricane preparedness is critical for older people
• How you can help your neighbors
• Hurricane Charley’s aftermath

Hurricane Wilma roared through Sheva Vapne’s retirement community in Boca Raton with a vengeance. After surviving the 2005 storm, Vapne and her Century Village neighbors thought the worst was over. They weren’t prepared for the challenge of living without electricity for nearly three weeks.

“It was a big problem. I live on the third floor, and the elevators weren’t working, so I had to walk down the stairs. It wasn’t easy, but I had no choice,” said Vapne, 81.

The arduous journey downstairs was for naught. Ice, water and food were delivered to the complex’s clubhouse, but Vapne, who doesn’t have a car, couldn’t lug them home.

Without the help of sympathetic friends, volunteers and public officials who later delivered provisions door-to-door, residents would have been in real trouble after the devastating storm, she said.

Operation Hurricane Prepare

The plight of Florida’s vulnerable population was evident during the tumultuous 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. But after three tranquil hurricane seasons, complacency has set in, said Lori Parham, AARP Florida state director. To ensure that older residents are ready for the next hurricane, AARP has launched Operation Hurricane Prepare, which gives members a chance to make a difference in the lives of others.

The volunteer program offers information in English and Spanish on how to help others prepare for a hurricane: copying vital papers, assembling provisions, preparing an evacuation kit and obtaining prescriptions. Volunteers can help older friends and neighbors pack emergency supply kits or provide kits of donated items.

“This is not only a good way to remind Floridians they should prepare for hurricane season, it’s a good way for them to help others,” said Parham. “As you are preparing your own kit you could be helping a neighbor who can’t help themselves. It’s an opportunity to do something for someone that could be critically important if there were a storm. A little time and preparation can go a long way to ensure you can manage a storm and endure the more critical time after it hits.”

Some tips from Operation Hurricane Prepare

• Keep three days of supplies on hand including food, water and prescriptions.

• Map out what to do if you are evacuated and prepare an evacuation kit.

• Copy vital documents like medical records, health and Social Security cards, wills, recent tax returns and contact information for anyone who needs to know where you are.

The program is geared to help people like Vapne, one of many who mostly fend for themselves during hurricanes.

“Twenty-five percent of seniors in Palm Beach County live alone,” said Nancy Yarnall, the planner/emergency operations coordinator for the Area Agency on Aging of Palm Beach/Treasure Coast, Inc. When disaster strikes, she said, “They are a unique population with unique needs.”

Disaster Preparedness Guide for Elders

The state’s Department of Elder Affairs has published a special edition of its bimonthly Elder Update newsletter, Disaster Preparedness Guide for Elders. It includes information on hurricanes and other types of emergencies and is available in both English and Spanish.

If a hurricane knocks out electricity or air conditioning, it is a nuisance for most people, but it can be life-threatening to older people with health problems.

Operation Hurricane Prepare kicked off in May at the continuing care community of South Port Square in Port Charlotte, which was one of the communities hit hardest by Hurricane Charley in 2004. The storm forced the evacuation of more than 500 residents and closure of the development for 10 months.

At the kickoff event, residents were told which vital documents to copy and keep with them.

“There’s a sense of great security to have those things with you. They may never be retrievable if a hurricane or tornado comes through. You open yourself up to many difficulties if you don’t have that basic information,” said Tess Canja, former AARP national president.

Canja rallied AARP members to help neighbors in Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda after Charley hit and later compiled a hurricane recovery guide.

Linda Haase is a freelance writer based in Boynton Beach, Fla.