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Caregiving: Lesson from Buffalo -- 3

By ALEX CUKAN, UPI Health Correspondent

ALBANY, N.Y., Oct. 25 (UPI) -- If 75 percent of the trees in Buffalo, N.Y., are damaged or have fallen from a snowstorm, but cable and network news don't report on it, did the trees really fall?

CNN's Anderson Cooper might be able to answer that question when he speaks at the University of Buffalo Oct. 12, exactly one month after western New York's snowstorm that killed 13 and left more than 1 million people without power -- some for 10 days -- resulting in more than 150 people being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning because of improperly vented generators.

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Since the national news media essentially ignored the story of Buffalo's "October Surprise," Cooper might visit the "World's Largest Mulch Pile." Buffalo's damaged trees are destined to create an estimated 25-acre mulch mountain piled 10 to 12 feet high.

Cooper, Oprah Winfrey and many others believe the poor response to Hurricane Katrina was because of race -- but it's been my experience that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has always been slow and the response inadequate, and those who pay the real price in a disaster are the sick, the young and the old -- and they are often white.

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Buffalo has weathered a lot of snowstorms -- even one event that totaled 7 feet of snow, but it never lost power because of snow. After a night of crashing tree limbs on Oct. 13, the western New York area woke up to an unexpected lake-effect snowstorm with about 2 feet of heavy wet snow that left 397,000 homes in four counties and businesses without power -- more than 1 million people.

Normally, 20 inches of snow would not be much of problem for Buffalo, but when the snowstorm hit, most of the leaves on the trees were still green, and as a result the snow hung on the leaves increasing the snow's weight resulting in "The City of Trees" having more limbs and branches on the ground than in the air.

The Buffalo suburb of Amherst was hard it. It has many upscale homes, but when Cooper is visiting he might take a look at the 800-square-foot homes built for retiring World War II veterans, where many raised families and lived there still, or their widows. Many used to have 60-year-old maple trees in the front yards.

The 80-somethings and the 90-somethings did what was expected. They had children, took care of their homes, paid some of the highest property taxes in the country and in their waning years despite all the post Sept. 11, 2001, emergency preparedness planning they were left in the cold, with food rotting in the refrigerator, water rising in the basement and an order to boil water before drinking. Few could escape because of the driving ban and the hazard of additional tree limbs falling, and there were few places to escape to. A few shelters -- very few -- were set up for those who could no longer stand the cold, but most stayed in their homes cold, alone and perhaps without water if they had an electric stove.

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Last year, after Hurricane Katrina, I interviewed a Buffalo official who dealt with emergency planning. I asked about what kind of provisions had been made for those needing assistance, the disabled and the elderly who are dependent on electricity. I didn't get much of a response.

Amherst had workers go door-to-door checking on elderly residents and transporting them to a warming center. The city and other suburbs asked neighbors to check on the elderly and many in the "City of Good Neighbors" did exactly that -- still many of the elderly were not checked on and they were left alone and left to fend for themselves. For those sitting in the dark listening to the radio telling people to "check on their neighbors" some wondered why more people hadn't checked on them -- leaving the already isolated even more isolated.

Once the 10-foot piles of tree debris have been removed -- at an estimated cost of $150 million to $250 million -- this storm will change more than the landscape, it will change the lives of many caregivers and the ones they care for.

Some out-of-town caregivers -- an exodus of college graduates left the area over the last 25 years to seek jobs elsewhere -- drove to Buffalo and scooped up their parents and left.

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How many will return is a question. Some have said they will move their parents with them or place them in assisted living where they live. But for some, the fear of fending for themselves during an emergency may overtake their desire to continue to live in their homes.

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Next: A better way

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Alex Cukan is an award-winning journalist, but she always has considered caregiving her primary job. UPI welcomes comments and questions about this column. E-mail: consumerhealth@upi.com

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