A call for improved emergency preparation & response
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
– George Santayana, a philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist
In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, after the death of at least nine nursing facility residents due to heat-related illness due to sweltering heat at a Hollywood, Florida-based facility that had lost power to run its air conditioner, the Senate Special Committee on Aging put the spotlight on the challenges facing seniors during natural disasters at a hearing on Sept. 20, 2017.
News coverage of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey provided heartbreaking reminders that seniors and persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable during a natural disaster. On Florida’s Gulf Coast, an assisted care facility for dementia patients lost electrical power for three days, causing 20 seniors to suffer from high indoor temperatures. Meanwhile, in Dickinson, Texas, a widely-shared photo showed elderly residents of an assisted-living center awaiting rescue as flood waters rose waist deep inside the facility.
Heeding the lessons from past disasters
When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast 12 years ago, more than half of those who died were seniors, according to a report from the National Institutes of Health. Since that devastating storm, disaster response officials have placed much emphasis at the national, state, and local level to better protect older Americans during an emergency.
“As we have learned from Hurricanes Irma and Harvey as well as past catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina, some of our neighbors – especially seniors – face many obstacles during a crisis, and we must focus on the attention older adults may need,” said Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee in a statement announcing the Senate panel hearing held in 562 Dirksen Senate Office Building.
In her testimony, Dr. Karen B. DeSalvo the former health commissioner for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, noted that medical records for most patients at the time of Katrina were kept only on paper and were destroyed, “turning to useless bricks,” or lost because of the disaster. For clinicians, treating patients who lost their medicines became a major challenge, she said.
Since Katrina, the New Orleans Health Department has been” working aggressively, to create a medical special needs digitized registry to maintain a list of high-risk individuals, those most in need of medical assistance for evacuation during preparations or in response operations, says Dr. DeSalvo.
Dr. DeSalvo called for “leveraging data and technology “as a way of creating more efficient and effective strategies of identifying the most vulnerable in a community. All communities could create such registries by using state Medicaid data to locate where residents who are electricity-dependent live. The electronic system, called emPOWER, is available for use nationally, and she recommended Congress fund training exercises to respond to disasters.
A witness, Jay Delaney, fire chief and management coordinator for the City of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, suggests that Congress continue to fully fund the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Investing in surveillance tools can enhance decision-making by making crucial weather data available before, during, and after a disaster.
For nursing homes and assisted living facilities, it is “critical” they have detailed shelter-in-place emergency plans, says Delaney, but for those who stubbornly choose to not leave their homes during a disaster, preparedness for those is a “tough nut to crack.”
“When you have to evacuate 15,000 people in 10 hours, you don’t have time to say, ‘Ma’am or sir, here’s why you have to go,’” Delaney said.
In his testimony, Paul Timmons Jr., CEO and president of Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, proposed the establishment of a National Center for Excellence inclusive Disability and Aging Emergency Management to improve emergency management responses to disasters to reduce injuries and save lives. “The initial focus of the center should include community engagement, leadership, training and exercise development, evacuation, sheltering, housing and universal accessibility,” he said, suggesting a five-year, $1 billion budget.
Finally, Witness Kathryn Hyer, a professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, provided eight tips for the Senate Aging panel to protect seniors during disasters. She called for emergency plan for nursing homes and assisted living; required generators to support generators in the event of a power failure, more research on what types of patients will benefit from evacuation or sheltering in place; construction of facilities in places that minimize flooding risk; identification of and prioritization for nursing homes and assisted living communities by state and local management organizations for restoration of services; litigation protection for facilities that abide by regulations and provide care during disaster scenarios; and continued commitment to geriatric education programs.
Prioritizing seniors’ needs in disasters
On Sept. 26, one week after the Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing on disaster preparedness and seniors, Senators Collins and Casey called for a swift federal response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In correspondence to three federal agencies, they urged the Administration to take all available steps to act swiftly and prioritize seniors in the response to Hurricane Maria The senators also urged the federal agencies to prioritize not only patients in acute health care facilities, but individuals in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as seniors living at home.
“We urge the Administration to heed the lessons of the recent hurricane response efforts in Florida and Texas and take all available steps to prioritize seniors in the response to this devastating storm,” the senators wrote. “Seniors must be quickly identified and resources deployed to ensure that no older American is left in unbearable heat without air conditioning or without water and food as response efforts continue. During this recovery period, it is even more important to multiply our efforts and deploy sufficient resources to support and rescue seniors.
It has been reported that the intensity of North Atlantic hurricanes and the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are increasing. With a high concentration of people and properties in coastal areas were hurricanes strike, it become crucial to learn emergency management lessons gleaned from past hurricanes and disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Irma. The Senate Select Committee on Aging is on the right track in seeking ways to put disaster emergency preparedness on the nation’s policy agenda. Now, it’s time for Congressional standing committees to adequate fund FEMA and the National Weather Service and strengthen emergency preparedness laws.
Herb Weiss, LRI ‘12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.