Lessons for All Disasters from Florida's Hurricanes

By Rothman, Max B.; Seff, Laura R. | Aging Today, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

Lessons for All Disasters from Florida's Hurricanes


Rothman, Max B., Seff, Laura R., Aging Today


The experiences of Sept. 11 in 2001, Hurricane Katrina and other dramatic events of recent years have generated numerous calls for a "culture of preparedness" among professionals in aging. Area agencies on aging and state units on aging are struggling, without additional resources, to better prepare for everything from hurricanes to avian flu to terrorist attacks.

Because these organizations must establish constructive new working relationships with emergency-preparedness officials and agencies outside the traditional elder-services networks, they must invest substantial time and human capital in negotiation and strategic planning. This process must be ongoing, with plans continually revised and updated based on each community's experiences and difficult lessons learned, as well as from the best practices gleaned from others.

RESEARCH

To distill crucial lessons learned in the wake of the four hurricanes that lashed Florida in 2004, our research team at the Center on Aging, Florida International University, Miami, conducted a study for the Quantum Foundation. Based on interviews with professionals throughout Florida who had been involved with responding to the needs of elders during those storms, plus a review of the professional literature, we prepared the report Disaster Planning for Older Adults and proposed a series of recommendations designed to assist aging-services networks in being better prepared for future emergencies.

Although the report emphasizes that plans should be as detailed as possible and should extend over a substantial period (at least seven to 10 days following the brunt of a disaster), we also recognize that professionals, like jazz musicians, will need to improvise and respond creatively to new situations and constantly evolving circumstances.

In each community, the network of services in aging needs to be at the emergency-planning table, increasing the recognition among emergency planners of the much higher level of vulnerability among even the most robust elders. Past experience shows that older adults are almost always disproportionately affected by disasters. The demographics of death from Katrina underscored this reality. Too often, though, older adults are lumped together with other groups rather than being targeted through efforts carefully designed to meet their particular needs. It is the special responsibility of the agingservices network to raise the level of awareness about these well-documented needs of elders among emergency planners, as well as with healthcare and service agencies or organizations charged with effective disaster planning, response and recovery.

It is of primary importance that all organizations involved have well-defined roles and responsibilities in addressing the issues of elders in a disaster. Experience demonstrates that individual agencies in aging have an admirable record of providing services to their own clients in the aftermath of most disasters. What is not as clear, however, is who is responsible for the well-being of all elders in a community, particularly in the aftermath of a disaster when older adults are most vulnerable. Relationships with local government, the healthcare system, United Way, faith-based and other voluntary organizations, state and federal governments, and other key actors must be negotiated well in advance to be effective in the throes of a large-scale and complex disaster.

VULNERABILITY MAPPING

One finding of our study was the need for widespread use of community-vulnerability mapping, the identification of areas of large numbers of older, low-income or minority elders, who will have an unequal exposure to risk and who lack the physical and economic resources to respond effectively. These elders are more likely to suffer health-related consequences of the emergency and will be slower to recover. Such maps provide vital assistance to those involved with evacuations, shelters and post-event searches, and help in defining areas of greatest need for services. …

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