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/

Housing Report Supports Push to Approve Question 7

Published in Woonsocket Call on October 30, 2016

Earlier this year, Rhode Island Housing (RIH) released a 44 -page report detailing the Ocean State’s current and future housing needs. One thing was clear to those attending this event: over the next decade the state will need more affordable housing for its residents.

Over the last 7 months, RIH’s Executive Director Barbara Fields has crisscrossed the Ocean State calling for increased housing opportunities for working Rhode Islanders. During this period of time she has presented the study’s findings to more than a dozen civic and government groups, including AARP Rhode Island, the Providence City Council and United Way.

During the last legislative session Rhode Island housing advocates were successful in their push for the enactment of a bond initiative that would make a significant state investment in affordable housing. As part of the omnibus statewide budget package, a $50 million Housing Opportunity Bond initiative for housing programs was passed by the House and Senate chambers, ultimately to be signed into law by Governor Gina Raimondo (D) and put to voter approval on the November ballot.

With the November election fast approaching, Fields has not let her report, compiled by HousingWorks RI, a research program at Rogers Williams University, sit on a dusty shelf but is using it to push for passage of the housing bond initiatives.

RIH Releases its Comprehensive Housing Study

On April 6, Fields gathered with state housing advocacy groups at the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation to unveil RIH’s landmark housing study, Projecting Future Housing Needs. Fields warned that the state’s economic comeback must be tied to new and existing housing that stays within the financial reach of Rhode Islanders. “Today in Rhode Island, the demand for housing is high while the supply is much too low. This imbalance simply makes the cost of housing too expensive for what our residents earn. This report provides critical insight into what the future needs of Rhode Islanders will be and that information will allow us to develop a plan to address those needs,” she said.

At this event, Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor tied adequate housing for working Rhode Islanders as key to bringing businesses to the Ocean State. “Companies looking to expand or relocate consider how well they will be able to retain and attract their workforce, and a key part of doing so is ensuring that employees of all income levels have high quality housing opportunities,” said Pryor. “It’s vital to our state’s economic success and our quality of life that we preserve and produce high quality housing options for our residents,” he added.

The RIH report’s findings indicate that Rhode Island’s population is projected to grow between 3 and 5 percent from 2015 to 2025. Researchers warn that new housing demand will outpace population growth, and anticipate a 12 to 13 percent increase in the number of households, driven by a growing population and simultaneous decline in household size tied to both lower birth rates and an aging population. Researchers also predict housing demand will be driven by a large population growth in two demographic groups that tend to have lower incomes – namely aging baby boomers and seniors and young millennials.

According to the RIH report, cost burden problems of paying rent do not just impact older Rhode Islanders and Millennials, but have become more mainstream issues over the last ten years and now affect all income brackets. The findings found that Rhode Islanders already pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, and that more than half of the increase in cost burden from 2000 to 2012 impacted households earning more than $57,700.

From 2000 to 2014, the researchers found that the state’s total population grew marginally at 0.11 percent, but the number of households grew by 0.28 percent. Rhode Island’s smaller household sizes are due, in part, to a larger proportion of older persons and a smaller proportion of persons of color when compared to national rates. Younger households are likely to have more people than those headed by people aged 65 and older, primarily because they are more likely to be family households with children. As this demographic shift continues, the future population will need more housing units to meet the increased household need caused by smaller household sizes typical of older householders.

Pushing for Passage of Question 7

Like Fields, Chris Hunter, campaign manager for the Yes On 7 Campaign, sees the RIH report’s findings as crucial information that voters need to know about the impending housing crisis. “As Rhode Island Housing’s recent report shows, we’re simply not creating enough new housing to meet projected population growth. At the same time we’re facing an affordability crunch as our young workers just starting their careers, families, veterans, and seniors are having a difficult time paying for housing while also making ends meet,” says Hunter.

“That’s why Question 7 and the $50 million Housing Opportunity bond is such a smart investment in housing and Rhode Island’s economy,” says Hunter, stressing that if approved by the voters the $50 million bond initiative will leverage an additional $160 million in federal and private investments.

According to Hunter, if approved, $40 million of the bond dollars will be allocated to the construction of affordable homes and apartments across Rhode Island, while the remaining $10 million will be used to help cities and towns revitalize blighted and foreclosed properties. The bond will also fund the construction of 800 affordable homes and apartments across Rhode Island and create 1,700 good paying local construction jobs.

Over 60 percent of Rhode Island voters passed housing bond initiatives in put on the ballot in 2006 ($50 million) and 2012 ($25 million), says Hunter. “Funding from these last two affordable housing bonds created 1,943 affordable units in 30 communities around the state, and leveraged more than $300 million in federal and private investment in these projects,” he says.

RIH‘s housing report has sounded the alarm, giving a stark warning to local and state officials that a housing crisis exists and will only get worse with the shifting of the state’s demographics. With the election looming, RIH’s Fields continues to push for passage on Question 7. Hunter works to mobilize his housing advocates and supporters of Question 7 to get the word out to every voter in Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns that this bond initiative must be passed. Hopefully, their message will get across to Rhode Island voters. We’ll see when the votes are counted.

For more details on Question 7, visit http://www.yeson7ri.com.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.