Hurricane Charley tests Florida HMEs

Thursday, September 30, 2004

POLK COUNTY, Fla. - When Hurricane Charley’s winds reached 100 mph on Friday, Aug. 13, Jeannine Russell gathered up her four kids and took refuge in an interior closet of the family’s double-wide trailer home.

“We prayed,” said the co-owner of Garrett’s Medical Supply in Winter Haven. “It was raining so hard you couldn’t see anything. It made us nervous.”

When it was all over, the family had reason to count its blessings. The high winds tore off roofs, pushed over mature trees, downed power lines, flooded roads and sent street signs slicing murderously through horizontal sheets of rain. In all, the category four hurricane (category five is the highest ranking) plowed into Florida’s central gulf coast and rolled inland, leaving hundreds homeless, killing 13 and causing billions in damage. The Russells lost a gutter on their home and a shingle or two but otherwise came through the storm unscathed.

“Our power came back on Sunday and we were ready to go Monday,” Russell said. “We thanked God because he spared us.”

Because she’s in the supplies business and typically delivers a month’s worth of ostomy and other items to her customers, Russell encountered few service challenges due to the storm.

Respiratory providers can only wish they were so lucky. With the storm producing widespread power outages, they worked around the clock delivering full oxygen cylinders to concentrator patients and picking up empties.

“I told one of my guys to go home Sunday because he was just worn out,” said Mary Miller, president of Encore Respiratory in Lake Alfred. “I’d used him all Friday night and Saturday. But he said, ‘No. I know you are going to need me.”

When a fallen tree blocked one of her driver’s route, he walked 45 minutes to deliver three E tanks.

“I wasn’t aware of that, and the third time I asked him to go out there he said, ‘You know I’m having to walk out there,’ and I said, ‘No. I wasn’t,’” Miller said.

Encore also delivered 20 concentrators to an emergency shelter and wired them in such a way that two low-flow oxygen patients could breath off one machine.

Of the company’s four locations, two lost power and phone service. The others came through Charley relatively unharmed.

Lincare wasn’t so lucky. Nine of its locations braved the storm, and two were destroyed, said company spokesman Joe Grillo.

Like Encore, Lincare provided extra cylinders to concentrator patients who lost power.

“There have been some challenges in locating all the patients,” Grillo said. “You have road signs blown down and streets blocked. It is total disruption.

“In some cases, you have to go to a shelter to try and find your patient. It is a Herculean effort to give these patients some normalcy in a situation that is abnormal.”
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