Lessons and Revelations from Hurricane Irma

On: September 18, 2017

By Pamela Leland, PhD, Executive Director 

Like many of us, I have older friends who live in south Florida. One particular couple, both in the 80s, are dealing with a number of health issues and have very limited financial resources. They are also fiercely independent, often refusing help when offered and/or not asking for help when it is needed. As a consequence, their support system is small; their local support system is almost non-existent.

They live near Miami, a few miles from the coast – and were directly in the path of Hurricane Irma. For this couple, the crisis of the hurricane was exacerbated by a conflict at home:  Should they ride out the storm at home or go to a shelter?

This question of “sheltering in place” versus going to an evacuation shelter is one that many people ask themselves in this kind of crisis. For older adults, however, the reasoning may be more complicated and internally inconsistent. My friends fought over this choice; the tension between them (over the phone) was palpable.

One wanted to leave for a guarantee of safety. Their small apartment, concrete block slab on grade, was probably strong enough to withstand the winds but not flooding. With no second floor, there was no place to go if the waters rose.

The other one faces significant and on-going health issues and could not imagine dealing with these issues in a very public, communal setting. In addition, physically, she could not get up and down from a mattress on the floor (which they would have had to bring themselves – if they could even figure out how to get a mattress there). And what about all her medications and medical supplies? She was adamant in not wanting to leave their apartment.

We are fortunate that, here in Chester County, we do not have to face the risks of hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes that people who live in other parts of the United States live with on a regular basis. We do, however, face disasters. We’ve had significant flooding events in recent years. Winter is coming with its threats of blizzards and loss of power. Fire is always a possibility. There are also unexpected disasters – for example when my own community had a problem with the water supply that shut off water for several days.

Things can happen. Things will happen. Are you ready?

Older adults – especially the very old who live alone – face particular issues in preparing for an emergency. Fortunately, there are a number of good resources to look to, and extensive and detailed information is available. The American Geriatrics Society’s Health in Aging Foundation offers a succinct 3-step strategy:

  1. Create an Emergency Plan. There are many dimensions of this including creating an emergency “phone call chain”, identifying a designated meeting place, making travel arrangements and decisions in advance, and communicating those decisions to others. It may also be appropriate to wear a Medical ID Bracelet and/or sign up for a medical-alert system.
  2. Stock an Emergency Medical Kit. This should include a 3-6 day supply of medications along with up-to-date medical information (physicians, prescriptions, etc.), any needed equipment (e.g., a blood pressure cuff, hearing aide batteries, extra pair of eyeglasses) and copies of Medicare, Medicaid or other insurance information.
  3. Make a Disaster Supplies Kit. This should include water and food for 3 days, all kinds of basic supplies (e.g., battery, flashlight, can opener, disposal cups, napkins, utensils, etc.), maps, clothing, hygiene products, blankets, cell phone and charger, first aid kit.

As noted above, more detailed information on creating a “disaster plan” can be found on the Health in Aging website (healthinaging.org) or American Red Cross (redcross.org) or the Center for Disease Control (cdc.gov). The American Red Cross’ publication, Disaster Preparedness: For Seniors By Seniors is excellent and available on-line.

These strategies may seem straightforward and obvious to those who live in areas where there are likely to be more frequent disasters. For those of us here in Chester County, it may be something that we plan to do “one day,” at some point “in the future.” Hurricane Irma is a reminder that disaster can strike at any time and it is incumbent on all of us to be ready.

This also includes ensuring that the older adults in our lives are also ready. Helping them be ready is more than having an emergency medical kit available. It means making sure that they can answer the question: are we able to shelter in place or are we going to evacuate? How can you support your older friends with disaster preparedness?

For my friends in Florida, the outcome of the storm is not yet known. They did leave their home but not for a shelter. One’s on-going health issues required admission to the hospital and they both ended up staying there through the hurricane. At this point they do not know what wind or water damage may have occurred to their apartment or if they even have a home to go back to.

 

Published in the Daily Local News, September 18, 2017