New resources to protect Seniors before, during and after Natural Disasters

Published in RINewsToday on July 18, 2022

Just last year alone, the Washington, DC-based AARP noted that the nation experienced more than 1,300 tornadoes, 21 named storms (with winds of 39 mph or greater), nearly 59,000 wildfires that burned more than 7.13 million acres, along with numerous ice storms and other weather events that caused major damage and fatalities. With hurricane season now approaching, AARP teamed up with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), announcing the release of new resources specifically designed to help local and state officials and Emergency Management Agency (EMA) officials protect seniors in their communities.

“By 2034, adults ages 65 and over will outnumber those under 18 in the United States for the first time. This has profound implications during natural disasters and extreme weather events,” said Nancy LeaMond, Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer at AARP, in a statement announcing the released resources. “State and local leaders and emergency officials must be better equipped and prepared to ensure that older adults are kept safe and their needs are met when a disaster strikes,” warns LeaMond.

The 9-page, Guide to Expanding Mitigation: Making the Connection to Older Adults, released by FEMA, highlights how natural hazards uniquely affect seniors and provides specific remedies as to how local mitigation and emergency planners can include seniors in community efforts to lower their risks.

Throughout its 44 pages, the AARP Disaster Resilience Took Kit features strategies to help local, state and community leaders and aging advocates reduce the risk and impact of disasters on older persons. 

The guide and tool kit are the result of a multi-year collaboration between AARP and FEMA to identify and provide resources, spark ideas and encourage organizations to better engage older Americans in disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery operations. This long-term, strategic alliance aims to advance accessible, safe and livable communities for people of all ages, says AARP.

“Adults aged 65 and older are a growing demographic who are often disproportionately impacted by severe weather. These disparities can be compounded by other factors, such as low-income or chronic illness, producing inequitable results for this vulnerable population when it comes to disaster preparedness,” said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell in a statement. 

“Effective mitigation planning requires that we consider the needs of all populations, and FEMA’s partnership with AARP on these guides will help community planners ensure our older communities are more resilient in the face of hurricanes and other natural disaster,” she said.

According to AARP, a growing body of evidence compiled shows that seniors are disproportionately impacted by the types of weather-related emergencies and natural disasters that are becoming increasingly frequent and severe. Individuals who have chronic illnesses, functional limitations or disabilities are especially vulnerable, as evidenced by the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on seniors.  Not only are older people at a higher risk of death from infectious diseases and disasters, but the long-term effects on those who survive often undermine their physical and mental health, economic security and overall well-being.

Although many communities support older adults in preparation for disasters, expanded mitigation planning can help reduce the loss of life and property by minimizing the impact of disasters before they happen, says AARP, noting that mitigation actions and strategies that make cities, towns and neighborhoods safer for older adults can benefit all residents and increase community resilience overall.

Protecting Seniors from Natural Disasters in the Ocean State

“One standout recommendation from the AARP/FEMA report was the adoption of more resilient and efficient building and land use standards, including the consideration of hazards in siting senior living facilities,” says RI Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who oversees the Emergency Management Advisory Council that reviews information and programs regarding emergency management and makes recommendations to the Governor on these issues.

“One of my highest priorities is the creation of more affordable housing of every kind, and we have to walk the line of growing not only quickly, but thoughtfully. As we consider how to use this budget’s $250 million investment in housing, we want to ensure that new developments meet FEMA standards and will keep Rhode Islanders safe. We’re already working with local communities’ EMA departments to review their community disaster preparedness plans, as well as their applications for FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grants — funding to help implement exactly the strategies outlined in this report,” she says.

“One omission that stands out to me is resources for unhoused seniors. According to the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness’s 2021 State of Homelessness report, over 500 Rhode Islanders aged 55 or older experienced homelessness over the course of a year. We need to strongly consider what kinds of hazard mitigation strategies could help this uniquely vulnerable population. Additionally, Rhode Island must especially focus on preparing sustainable mitigation and response systems that account for the effect of climate change on our coastal communities, which we know have large senior populations and will become increasingly vulnerable to flooding,” says Matos.

”FEMA has provided a very valuable tool with the Guide to Expanding Mitigation – Making the Connection to Older Adults guide. At the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency,  we work with our local emergency managers, non-profits (Rhode Island Community Food Bank, Red Cross of Rhode Island, United Way and more) and other state agencies including the Department of Health and the Office of Healthy Aging to ensure older Rhode Islanders have the resources they need when disaster strikes. These reports will help us in our efforts to continue to support individuals in this vulnerable group,” says Director Marc Pappas, of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency.

“Preparedness is a core function of public health. This is especially true when it comes to climate change and older adults. As these resources highlight, it is critical that the unique needs of older adults are considered when planning for weather-related emergencies and natural disasters. This is already a priority for us at the Rhode Island Department of Health when it comes to emergency preparedness, and it will continue to be a focus,” says Joseph Wendelken, Public Relation Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“Before, during and after a natural disaster, the safety and wellbeing of older Rhode Islanders must always be a top concern,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor

“Emergency planners and managers at the state and especially local levels, along with first responders and many others, play a critical role in reducing anxiety and any subsequent harm when disaster strikes. Whether it’s a hurricane, flooding, extreme heat or infectious disease, ongoing planning and the coordination of all available resources is necessary to minimize consequences,” says Taylor.

“The AARP/FEMA guide and toolkit can go a long way towards mitigating deaths and long-term impacts among Rhode Island’s most vulnerable citizens. We encourage all leaders involved in Rhode Island public safety and public health to take advantage of this new resource. There are many aspects of age-friendly, livable communities – resilience in the face of disaster is chief among them,” Taylor adds.

AARP Rhode Island Volunteer State President Marcus Mitchell has firsthand disaster management experience. “As a former Division Commander with the US Coast Guard Auxiliary and Community Emergency Response Team Instructor for Providence Emergency Management Agency, I am actively involved with emergency & disaster mitigation, response and recovery efforts that dramatically and profoundly impact our older population physically, emotionally and financially,” he said. 

“Not only are seniors often hit first and hardest but their families are deeply affected as well,” Mitchell added. “We hope to save lives throughout the community, mitigate damages and reduce injury by vigorously distributing the new guide and toolkit to our members and the community at large.”

West Warwick resident Vincent Marzullo gives a thumbs up to AARP/FEMA’s released resources, saying that their information will be extremely valuable to the State and local EMA officials charged with protecting the state’s aging and vulnerable population during natural disasters. “Several barriers prevent older adults from evacuating when needed. Many older adults cannot drive and do not have access to reliable, accessible public transportation, depend on home-based medical equipment, require specialized accessibility supports, or cannot bring pets when evacuating. Some older adults are caregivers to spouses or partners with one or more vulnerabilities that may also hinder their ability to take timely action and remain safe, says Marzullo, who served for 31 years as a federal civil rights & social justice director for the Corporation for National & Community Service and a Federal Disaster Cadre Coordinator for the National Service Agency.

“State and local EMA officials must regularly outreach to the older Rhode Islander on the Rhode Island Department of Health’s “Special Needs Emergency Registry” to check their status/needs, especially individuals who are isolated and immobile.  There are approximately 15,000 individuals with chronic illnesses that have opted-in to the registry in order to be checked in times of emergency/disasters.  These older adults are vulnerable and need periodic support,” says Marzullo.

Marzullo calls for on-going disaster resilience webinars to be available to better prepare State and local EMA officials and organizations to respond to sudden natural disasters.  Targeted organizations might include the Red Cross, AARP RI, Senior Agenda Coalition of RI, Senior Center Directors Association, AARP members, RIElder Info, 211/The Point, and the Emergency Management Advisory Council (EMAC).

Melissa Carden, RIEMA’s Chief Public Affairs Officer says while winter storms, hurricanes and flooding are most common in the Ocean State, expect climate change to have a profound effect on the weather, including more storms and greater precipitation. “This fuels other extreme weather events like flooding (coastal and inland – remember the flooding in RI in 2010). Although scientists are uncertain whether climate change will lead to an increase in the number of hurricanes, there is more confidence that warmer ocean temperatures and higher sea levels are expected to increase their intensity and impacts.”

 To view and download the Guide to Expanding Mitigation: Making the Connection to Older Adults, visit  https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/documents/fema_mitigation-guide_older-

adults.pdf

To download a PDF of the AARP Disaster Resilience Tool Kit, featuring strategies to help local, state and community leaders and advocates reduce the risk and impacts of disasters on older adults, go to  https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/livable-communities/tool-kits-resources/2022/AARP%20Disaster%20Resilience%20Tool%20Kit-singles-060122-.pdf

The following (free) Livable Publication booklets and guides, go to https://www.aarp.org/livable-communities/tool-kits-resources/livable-publications-order-form/https://www.homecareassistancerhodeisland.com/

GAO Report, Congress, Urge Better Disaster Response to Seniors and Disabled

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 23, 2019

Following a newly released 75-page report on the nation’s disaster response from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), and after an outbreak of destructive tornadoes in the Midwest and the start of the 2019 hurricane season, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), Ranking Member and Chairman of the Special Committee on Aging, throw a bill into the legislative hopper to assist seniors and disabled persons before, during and after natural disasters strike.

The Casey-Collins legislation, S. 1755, titled the “Real Emergency Access for Aging and Disability Inclusion (REAADI) for Disasters Act” would support the development of preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation plans that are inclusive of seniors and people with disabilities. The legislation would also ensure that these individuals would have a voice in creating emergency plans that directly affect them. Senators cosponsoring the bill include Doug Jones (D-AL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Another bill, S.1754, titled the “Disaster Relief Medicaid Act” (DRMA), sponsored by Cassey, would ensure Medicaid services are consistently available for individuals forced to relocate to another state due to disaster or emergency. It would protect those residing in an area covered under a presidential disaster declaration as a “Relief-Eligible Survivor,” and grant them the support needed to easily access or apply for Medicaid services in their host state. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are cosponsoring this bill.

Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Chris Smith (R-NJ) plan to introduce the House companion measure of REAADI Act. Congresswoman Donna Shalala (D-FL) will introduce DRMA in the House chamber.

Inadequate Disaster Planning Can Result in Death

“Inadequate planning for disasters can mean life or death, so it is critically important that every
community is prepared to meet the needs of all citizens—including older adults and people with disabilities—before, during and after a disaster strikes,” says Casey in a June 11 statement announcing the introduction of REAADI, calling for seniors and people with disabilities to be actively involved in developing emergency preparedness plans that will keep them safe.

In this statement, Collins adds, “As we have learned from natural disasters such as Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, some of our neighbors – especially seniors and individuals with disabilities – face many obstacles during a crisis. We must focus on the attention they may need. The bipartisan legislation improves training and coordination to help ensure that local, state, and federal officials are adequately equipped to care for the most vulnerable in their communities during a natural disaster.”

“As someone who lives with a disability, I take this issue to heart. The REAADI for Disasters Act will help eliminate barriers faced by people with disabilities and older adults during disasters by providing them a greater role in the policymaking process,” says Langevin, co-chair of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus, stressing the importance of passing the DRMA to continue Medicaid support services to America’s disabled and seniors.

GAO Report Gives Roadmap to Integrating Assistance During Natural Disasters

Released June 5, GAO’s Report, titled FEMA Action Needed to Better Support Individuals to Better Support Individuals Who Are Older or Have Disabilities, examines the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster response to three sequential hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria – that affected more than 28 million people in 2017. According to FEMA, seniors and persons with disabilities faced challenges in these natural disasters when evacuated to safe shelter, accessing medicine and obtaining recovery assistance. In June 2018, FEMA began implementing a new approach to assist individuals with disabilities.

GAO’s report addressed the challenges FEMA partners reported in providing assistance to seniors and the disabled and took a look at the challenges such individuals faced accessing assistance from the federal agency and the actions FEMA took to address these challenges. The federal study also examined the FAMA’s new strategy to assist persons with disability.

Here are GAO’s seven recommendations to FEMA:

The federal agency, charged with providing auditing, evaluation and investigated services to Congress, called on the FEMA Administrator to develop and publicize guidance for partners, during the data sharing process, who are requesting individual assistance data from seniors and persons with disabilities during natural disasters.

The GAO report also called on the FEMA Administrator to implement new registration-intake questions to improve FEMA’s ability to identify and address survivors’ disability-related needs, by directly soliciting survivors’ accommodation requests.

GAO also suggested that the FEMA Administrator improve communication of registrants’ disability-related information across FEMA programs, by developing an alert within survivor files that indicates an accommodation request.

As to the federal agency’s new strategy to specifically assist persons with disability, GAO urged the FEMA Administrator to establish and disseminate a set of objectives for the federal agency’s new disability integration approach.

The GAO report also recommended that the FEMA Administrator provide a written plan for implementing its new disability integration staffing approach to Regional Administrators and Regional Disability Integration Specialists. The plan would be consistent with the new objectives established for disability integration. It would also include an implementation timeline and details on staff responsibilities, which regions could use to evaluate staff performance.

Additionally, the GAO report recommends that the FEMA Administrator should develop a plan for delivering training to FEMA staff that promotes their competency in disability awareness. The plan should include milestones and performance measures, and outline how performance will be monitored.

Finally, the GAO report suggests that the FEMA Administrator develop a timeline for completing the development of new disability-related training that the federal agency can offer to its partners that incorporates the needs of individuals with disabilities into disaster preparedness, response and recovery operations.

For a copy of the GAO report, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/GAO%2019-318%206-3-19.pdf.

Senate Aging Panel Calls for Improved Emergency Preparation and Response

Published in the Woonsocket call on October 8, 2017

“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.

Creating Registries to Protect the Vulnerable

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. response.

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, ‘Mam 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 Senior’s 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.