Two people died in unincorporated Sarasota County after power outages due to Hurricane Ian disabling the oxygen machines they were using.
Sarasota County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Kaitlyn Perez said the victims were a 94-year-old man in the Palmer Ranch area and an 80-year-old woman in north Sarasota. The victims are not related.
The District 12 Medical Examiner's Office said Friday afternoon it will not be releasing the identities of the two individuals.
As of 1 p.m. Friday, Florida Light and Power reported that some 151,550 customers, or about 53% of the total 287,120 customers, in Sarasota County were without power.
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University of South Florida Aging Studies Professor Lindsay Peterson said in recent years there has been a lot of work to help keep older adults from moving into nursing homes.
Yet, there haven't been enough protections set up to help those adults during natural disasters like there are in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospitals.
"There's a gap there that we really need to fill," Peterson said. "To hear this news about the two people on oxygen, its so heartbreaking, but it was kind of predictable that this would happen."
Peterson said these tragic incidents highlight the need to figure out plans on how to help people living on their own that have the nursing-home-level needs, but not the same assistance such facilities provide during such storms.
Family can be very important in these types of situations, but for those who don't have family close, it really is important for neighbors to take an interest.
If the two individuals were receiving any services from a home health agency or some other agency, Peterson wondered if they were contacted beforehand or had a plan in case of a natural disaster.
While those agencies aren't required to help people get out during storms, they can ensure that the person has a plan or put them in contact with someone that can help, Peterson said.
Sarasota County does offer a medical needs program for residents who have health problems and require assistance with transportation and sheltering during disaster events.
"The county encouraged individuals who need to register for this program to do so before the start of hurricane season," Brianne Grant, media relations officer for Sarasota County, said in an email Friday.
Those who apply for the program are registered as a medically-dependent person and if they qualify, will be transported to a medically-dependent Evacuation Center.
Medically-dependent residents are required to bring a caregiver who will help with activities related to daily living, transporting food from the cafeteria, monitoring oxygen usage and providing management with a discharge plan if residents can't return home.
Spouses or significant others and dependents are also able to come to the Evacuation Center with the medically-dependent person. However, there is no guarantee that everyone will be housed in the same room or that bedding and cots will be available, according to the county's website about the program.
Residents who are evacuated to an evacuation center are asked to bring two weeks of medications, extra small "travel" bottles of oxygen if they need them, medical equipment they may need and if they have special dietary needs to bring those foods in a cooler as special diets can't be accommodated.
Grant said that leading up to the storm, the registration process was advanced so calls went to the contact center at 3-1-1.
"Those who were already registered where contacted and began moving to facilities before the storms arrival," Grant said.
Peterson said it's important for folks with special needs to register with the state and with local special needs shelters in advance of natural disasters.
Florida has a statewide registry created by the Florida Department of Health in conjunction with county health departments and local emergency management agencies. The registry was designed to give first responders valuable information to prepare for natural disasters, according to the department's website.
The problem with the registry, Peterson said, is that while it lets the state know how many people will need the special needs shelters, it doesn't mean someone will come help them.
Individuals will have to contact their local special needs shelter to arrange transportation.
Additionally, while special needs shelters will be able to take care of people with oxygen tanks, dementia and other medical problems, they aren't very pleasant and can have disruptive environments. It's one of the factors why some people, especially those with dementia, choose to stay home during hurricanes, Peterson said.
"Special needs shelters aren't always the answer, but they do exist and its an important thing to know about, especially if someone is using medical equipment," she said.
Beyond emergency centers, Peterson stressed the importance of people checking-in on their elderly neighbors ahead of the storms.
While it may be difficult nowadays, since neighborhoods change so frequently, if someone is aware someone near them has mobility problems or uses oxygen machines, see if they need anything to prepare ahead of the storm.
Gabriela Szymanowska covers the legal system for the Herald-Tribune in partnership with Report for America. You can support her work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America. Contact Gabriela Szymanowska at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter.