By Thomas Goldsmith

The specters of catastrophic hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Florence last year are looming darkly over this week’s preparations for Hurricane Dorian, the latest unwanted newcomer to the Tar Heel State.

Across North Carolina on Wednesday, older people and those charged with looking after them made preparations, checked registries of vulnerable residents, and pondered some lessons of these recent massive storms. For older North Carolinians, Florence created a particularly tragic legacy where two out of every three of the 39 people killed by the storm were 65 or older.

shows an old man with a sharp gaze sitting in a room with many cots and blankets
At 103, Wilmington resident George Alsberg was likely one of the oldest voluntary evacuees of Hurricane Florence in 2018. He spent time in a shelter in Raleigh while he waited out the storm. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

“Our counties overall do a tremendous job of working with the Emergency Management Center and local EMS,” said Laura Alvarico. She’s the director of the Albemarle Commission Area Agency on Aging and works with 10 coastal county governments to make sure seniors are safe. “What worries me is that flooding can be the worst part of a hurricane.”

The likelihood of coastal flooding from Dorian meant that operators of long-term care centers were keeping close contact with Alvarico and others about whether assisted-living and nursing homes should evacuate residents or tough out the storm in place.

“We are working with all the long-term care centers to make sure they are either evacuating or if they are staying put that we get a copy of their emergency plans,” said Alvarico, who works with Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hyde, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell and Washington counties.

“They put a lot of consideration into where the storm is headed, also their elevation, also the things they have in place, like generators.”

Checking one by one

A bill to require generators in assisted living facilities stalled in the General Assembly this spring when industry representatives argued the requirement would cost more than state reimbursement could cover.

When older people in the community register for county assistance such as in-home aides, they can be placed on a special needs registry, like the one in New Hanover County, that details what help they’ll need in times of disaster. Staff at the nonprofit agency Resources for Seniors in Raleigh were already calling people on the Wake County registry Wednesday, said Heather Burkhardt, program manager.

“We are calling all of our clients and their family members to see if they are in need,” Burkhardt said. “We do a pre-disaster call-down to see if they need anything in the next few days.”

The Resources for Seniors staff, like other experienced workers across the state, plan for needs that others might not predict. When a storm nears, they print out long physical lists of phone numbers they will need and take them home, so they can check with clients via cell phones even if electricity is down. If agencies can’t fill their in-home aide slots, social workers make sure family members, friends, or neighbors can fill in.

‘Floodwaters can be deadly’

The exhaust or fumes from a portable generator could kill you in minutes if you breathe it in. Image courtesy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“So many of our clients depend on in-home aides. They need to have backup plans in case their aides can’t get there,” she said. “It’s intertwined in our daily business and it doesn’t just happen in hurricanes. It can be ice storms or just somebody calling in sick.”

Planning like this can forestall some of the deadly developments seen in Florence among people older than 65: the six of 11 vehicle-related drowning victims, three out of the five people who died while cleaning up their properties, and a couple, 86, who died after lighting candles because they had no power all were 65 or older.

Already on Wednesday, the state marked the first death connected with Dorian when a Columbus County man, 85, fell from a ladder while getting his home ready for the storm. Gov. Roy Cooper announced the death during an afternoon press conference. He also cautioned North Carolinians about a perennial hazard: “We know all too well that floodwaters can be deadly.”

Just don’t do it

The vehicle drowning deaths fall in too-familiar territory for Steve Marshall, director of the Injury Prevention Research Center and an epidemiologist at UNC Chapel Hill.

“The primary advice always has to be, don’t drive on flooded roads,” Marshall said.

“With water that’s muddy and you don’t know what’s here, there could be a rock, could be anything. You’ve got no idea what you’re driving into or over. So, if not for your own protection, at least for the safety of others, don’t try it.”

People tend to underestimate greatly the power of water that’s running parallel to the direction of the road, Marshall said.

“A lot of people have pickup trucks or big SUVs,” he said. “But, you’ve got to realize that these vehicles are still designed for dry land, not developed with the idea of driving through rapidly moving water.”

Preparations such as those connected with the special needs registries can preempt the need for urgent missions into flooded roads.

“People in disaster situations are often trying to act with appropriate caution and take care, however, they also have a lot of other things going on,” Marshall said. “Sometimes they’ve got to get food, or go get supplies, or tend to a loved one, or go check on Grandma. People are stressed and wanting to go and verify that their loved ones and family and neighbors are safe.”

Sometimes making sure in advance that both older people and their caregivers have plenty of supplies and charged-up cell phones can keep both parties safely at home.

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Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...