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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Stormy weather
Branch WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

Hurricane Harvey produced unprecedented flooding and indescribable human misery; much of it captured in images from news cameras and cell phones. Among the most disturbing of these images were those from flooded nursing homes with aged residents trapped in wheelchairs as the water level climbed toward their shoulders. There is no final count of handicapped elderly who were rescued by armies of heroes who saved so many in Texas and Louisiana or of those who died in their homes.

This raises a question about preparation to protect the elderly in other places. One of the great dangers is storm surge, which affects coastal areas where hurricanes make landfall. This is not a concern for such inland places as Bulloch and surrounding counties.

Due to geography and the Gulf Stream, coastal Georgia rarely suffers direct hits. However, they have happened. In 1898, a hurricane overtopped all or parts of Cumberland and St. Catherine's islands and ravaged Brunswick and other coastal locations with storm surge, rain and wind. There have been other, less powerful hits and there will be other big ones sooner or later.

Harvey's flooding rain resulted from Gulf of Mexico water temperatures 8 degrees warmer than usual and the fact that the storm came ashore and refused to move. Distance from the gulf makes those conditions less likely elsewhere, but several years ago, a storm came in from the gulf and stalled near Albany before moving north slowly. It floated caskets out of graves in Albany, sent Ocmulgee River flood waters over highways in Macon and raked the Atlanta area with tornadoes. More recently, a hurricane flooded much of eastern North Carolina, virtually wiping out the area's huge hog farming operations and polluting rivers with their waste. It can happen here.

Statesboro is served by a network of small streams and drainage ditches that join to take runoff water into Little Lott's Creek. There are already problem spots, but rainfall like Harvey's 30 to 50-plus inches would overwhelm this system. Beautiful Eagle Creek would overflow. There would be major flooding from the eastern side of the Georgia Southern campus across Fair Road and College Plaza and across South Main. Radically flooded, Lott's Creek would back water up onto streets and in the drainage system. It is an unlikely event, but it is not impossible.

The third problem is wind. Less than a year ago, Hurricane Matthew hit Bulloch County a glancing blow after devastating Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean then raking the coasts of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. A Category 5 storm, its total damage exceeded that of Harvey. Trees were down everywhere in Statesboro and the rest of Bulloch County. Some homes and subdivisions were completely blocked. In spite of the best efforts of utility companies, some homes were without electricity or phone service for days.

At this writing, Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm and the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic, is bearing down on some of the same targets hit by Matthew, including Puerto Rico, Haiti, Cuba and south Florida. Weather experts cannot predict its path. It might follow a course much like Matthew's or go into the Gulf of Mexico and strike anywhere from Texas to west Florida. A direct hit from the Atlantic on any east coast state from Florida to North Carolina is also possible.

Questions. What have we learned from past hurricanes? Are we prepared for the next one to hit us here? Are there plans in place to take care of vulnerable senior citizens?

Organizations that serve the elderly — assisted living facilities, nursing homes, hospices, etc. — have developed plans for emergency situations. However, Matthew and Harvey might have raised issues requiring adjustments. The nature of a storm's impact, whether wind or rain, creates different sets of problems. A key concern is coordination and communication with and among first responders at every level. Is everyone "reading from the same page" when the time to act comes?

In dangerous times, the most vulnerable seniors are those who live in their own households. Many — perhaps most — have some degree of disability, thus are less able to confront crises. Informal networks of kinship and friendship provide help and security for many but others are not so fortunate. What is needed is a system for emergency responders to know who and where these people are.

The most at-risk among the elderly who become isolated by storms are those who live in rural areas. Bulloch County is large and is home to thousands of older people.  To some extent, the rural elderly can rely on family members and friends when they need help. However, when roads are impassible and downed trees block access or communication, the problems may be too much for old friends or kin. Worse, it could be that nobody knows that they are in trouble. What if they are injured, are out of necessary medication, lack electricity for medical equipment or have run out of food?

Is it possible to develop a comprehensive emergency plan for them? Who or what agency would, could or should make the plan and carry it out when necessary?

Bulloch County's senior citizens have some reliable friends among the county commissioners. Their support is reflected in the planned new senior citizens center. Their continued good service as well as that of Ted Wynn, director of emergency management, and the office of the sheriff will be key to the welfare of the rural aged when the "big one" hurricane strikes. These are dedicated public servants but the challenge is great.


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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