"The image that sticks in my mind from my interviews is that of older people with walkers, canes and human assistance struggling over debris-laden roads to get out of the area," Nora O'Brien recalled about her work following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She continued, "Social workers told me how difficult and frightening it was to help these frail older people walk farther north from the towers. They moved very slowly and had to take frequent breaks, sitting, in order to catch their breath to move on. Imagine how scary it must have been."
O'Brien, director of partnerships at the International Longevity Center-USA (ILC-USA) in New York City, presented her study, "Emergency Preparedness for Older People," at the 2003 Joint Conference of the National Council on the Aging and the American Society on Aging in Chicago in March. Released as an "Issue Brief" on the organization's website at www.ilcusa.org, the report distills lessons learned by agencies serving elders following the tragedy-lessons that service organizations can apply anywhere to disasters of any type, including floods, tornados or earthquakes.
ANIMALS BEFORE ELDERS
O'Brien began contacting agencies in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 incident after a local foundation called ILC-USA to express concern about how well agencies were able to reach out to older people following the destruction. She discovered that "within 24 hours, the animal advocacy groups were on the scene rescuing pets from evacuated buildings. However, it took from three to more than seven days for people to think about the older people who were left behind in evacuated buildings." In many cases, older and frailer people who were not connected to the better-organized service groups were stranded without food, water or their medications, because elevators were out of commission and they were unable to walk down stairs. In other cases, police barred home health aides who didn't have the official identification carried by emergency-response personnel from entering buildings in areas near the World Trade Towers. Furthermore, the breakdown in communications and transportation meant that older people and their families were unable to reach one another.
"One of the biggest issues," O'Brien said, "was volunteering. A lot of volunteers had no place to go; there was no central office to send out volunteers and the Red Cross was turning them away" when other organizations needed helping hands.
According to O'Brien, her initial findings showed that "the agencies responded the best they could; however, there was no interagency coordination." The fragmented organizational response left many elders to "fall through the cracks, especially those who were not known to any organization." She also discovered that the Federal Emergency Management Administration and private service organizations, such as the Red Cross, had no plans to meet the special needs of elders or people with disabilities. O'Brien, whose study was funded by The New York Times Company Foundation, noted that these agencies responded enthusiastically to her "Issue Brief" and are beginning to organize a plan.
O'Brien recommended that communities form interagency groups to coordinate services and resources, and she recommended that communities with high concentrations of older residents organize leadership consortiums. In New York City, she said, "these neighborhoods act as little villages, and I found that the tighter the villages were, the better they were able to respond to the neighbors that were there."
EAST SIDE NETWORK
A key finding, according to O'Brien, was that agencies that had reacted most successfully to the emergency "had very strong leaders, who had foresight to put together a plan." These organizations had developed a list of emergency numbers accessible to their staff members, clients and clients' family members. These agencies also had backup headquarters, and-in preparation for the year 2000 (Y2K) computer crisis that never materialized-they backed up their computer data in remote locations. …