Florida's elderly Jews still digging out after Wilma

Compared with past horrors, even a hurricane can be lived through with equanimity.

Compared to the horrors Hanna Platt lived through during the Holocaust - she lost a lung following a particularly severe beating at Auschwitz - Hurricane Wilma and its aftermath were a breeze. Even so, the slight woman of 78 said, things were pretty bad at Century Village, the sprawling retirement community in Boca Raton, Fla., where she has lived since 1983. "We were without electricity for eight days," Platt recalled. "Ham I don't eat, since I keep kosher. So for the first couple of days, I couldn't eat anything. Finally, when the kosher food came, I was already too weak to go and pick it up. So the girls delivered me chicken." The "girls" Platt affectionately refers to are volunteers with Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service, a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. The agency moved into high gear in the days after Oct. 24, when Hurricane Wilma pounded the area with 100-mph winds and severe flooding, leaving millions of South Florida residents without running water, electricity or telephone service for days. Some of the worst damage was seen in the heavily Jewish city of Boca Raton, which suffered its first direct hit from a hurricane in 55 years. At both Century Village and Kings Point - a large retirement community in Delray Beach - roofs were blown off buildings and rains poured in, soaking carpets, furniture, walls and personal possessions. Chabad of West Boca was among the many Jewish organizations providing relief once the storm had passed, the congregation's rebbetzin, Chani Bukiet, said. "We were able to get ready-to-eat meals from Chabad headquarters in New York," Bukiet said. "The Chabad rebbetzin in Coconut Creek got together with all the various Chabads around and we took the food to various communities in the area." Nine weeks after the storm, several hundred elderly Jews in southern Palm Beach County area are still living in temporary housing such as FEMA shelters, trailers or with friends, Jewish Family Services executive director Jaclynn Faffer said. "We were the first agency to hit the ground running the day after Wilma," she told JTA. "The Area Agency on Aging sort of asked us to be the coordinating agency. We formed a partnership between them, the Palm Beach Sheriff's Department and our elected officials. We literally went door to door, delivering food and ice, making sure people had their medical needs attended to." Added Anne Chernin, the agency's director of community relations and government affairs: "The reality is that in the aftermath of Wilma, many apartments were damaged and had to be condemned. But FEMA," the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "and the insurance companies have created such a bureaucracy, basically bullying the seniors and taking advantage of them." She said Jewish Family Services still has caseworkers going door-to-door at Century Village and Kings Point, helping people fill out applications for government assistance. "The problem is that much of what's done today is done online, but only 10 percent of seniors are computer literate," Chernin said. "It's one thing to have a computer and check your e-mail; it's a whole other thing to fill out forms online. They've put up a number of roadblocks for seniors." Chernin said the family services agency will head a task force meeting in early January that will address many of these issues and develop a plan for future disasters. "We know that, in all likelihood, there will be more hurricanes - and our goal is to be better prepared and have a better, more coordinated approach," she said. The agency also is trying to publicize its 10-year-old CareLink program for Jewish residents aged 75 or older - like Platt, whose two daughters live in New York and California. The agency expects demand for the program to pick up significantly. "CareLink allows adult children up north to contact us, and we can work with them to check up on their parents," Faffer said. "So we become the surrogate children. We accompany them to doctor's appointments and do formal monthly reports. There's constant e-mail contact between us and the adult children. "We're trying to publicize this program up north so that people know about us before an emergency occurs," she said. The family services agency charges its clients $350 for an initial evaluation, then a $100 hourly rate for services rendered. This includes sending someone to visit twice a week to make sure elderly parents are eating properly. "We can hook them up with a home health-care agency that gives them a preferred rate," Faffer said. "They sign a contract, which says we'll keep an eye out on the parents, get them involved in any one of our many programs, most of which are free, so at least they have some social support. "A lot of private companies do this for a lot more money. We don't even break even on the program," said Faffer, adding that "as the Jewish population gets older and older, "there's going to be more and more of a need for this." In fact, a soon-to-be-released demographic study shows that, while the median age of Jews in southern Palm Beach County is 71, only 9 percent of them have adult children also living in the county, while another 12 percent have an adult child living elsewhere in South Florida. "After the hurricane, we had one woman drive up to our agency with her 90-year-old mother in the back seat, saying she needed a place to put her," Faffer said. "The daughter lived in Boca Raton and still had electricity and plenty of room, but didn't want to take her mother in." "It's not unusual for us to get a call from an adult child who's just moved his mom or dad, or both, into an apartment at Kings Point," she said. "Then they call us as they're about to fly back north and say, 'Take care of them.' They just dump their parents here. It's not the majority, but it happens more than you can imagine."