Fran Marscher Christian Science Monitor, Aug 22, 2004
HILTON HEAD, S.C. — Hurricane Charley demonstrated last weekend why some of the nation’s most vulnerable folk — the ill, the disabled, and the frail elderly — should think twice before taking up residence in the most dangerous parts of the hurricane-prone coastal regions. For those most at risk, public policymakers ought to discourage or prohibit development on the riskiest lands.
Last Saturday morning, rescue workers found a stunned and bewildered elderly woman alone in a smashed cinder-block condominium in a retirement community in one of the hard-hit areas of southwest Florida. Could she have evacuated? Did she understand ahead of time – – and in time — the threat to her life? Could she have packed her most precious belongings and driven herself through heavy traffic out of harm’s way to a safe place to spend the night? Now that her retirement home is wrecked beyond livability, where will she go?
Along with the responsibility of individuals for their own choices, elected officials have responsibilities for planning and zoning restrictions in the public interest. To often, they fan the fires of growth instead of looking after those unable to help themselves.
Assisted-living facilities have sprung up almost as fast as tennis courts near the nation’s beaches. By definition, thousands of their residents are incapable of evacuating themselves when a hurricane whirls offshore and aims landward. Their problems range from aches, pains and stiffness, to dependence on wheelchairs and bottled oxygen. In short, they need others to help them make it through every day. They should not be subjected either to the stress of hurricane evacuations or to the havoc of hurricane impact.
Living quarters for folk who are fragile, whether because of illness or age, should be sited appropriately — miles inland if necessary — certainly not on land likely to be flooded or subject to a hurricane’s highest winds. Further, all buildings anywhere in the coastal zones — but especially those housing the ill and the disabled, and those unable to live on their own — should be required to be built or retrofitted to withstand hurricane-force winds.
Where we call ourselves civilized, policymakers are obligated to protect those who cannot protect themselves.