Disasters hit elderly hard

"This elderly man came out of the front door of his house..."

BY SUSAN KIM | LOUISVILLE, Ky. | May 21, 2004

"They can't stand in line in the sweltering heat waiting for a bag of ice or water."

—Michael Weston

"This elderly man came out of the front door of his house. But there was nothing left of the house behind him, no walls, no roof. Only the door was standing. Still, he had a little cardboard box full of stuff. And he turned around and locked the front door behind him."

John Stokesberry has been working with seniors for more than 35 years, but that image from Florida has stayed with him since he observed the devastation in Florida following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Florida is a good state to start with when talking about senior citizens. More than 4 million of them live in that state, more than 82 percent of them in coastal communities. One southwest Florida county has the highest population of elderly people - 60 percent - in the entire country. That county is at such a low elevation that there are no shelters, and the entire county has to evacuate.

After Hurricane Andrew struck - followed by a large storm in March 1993 - Stokesberry, who was then director for the Florida Alliance on Aging, and others began advocating even more loudly for disaster preparedness for older people. Stokesberry retired in 2001 but still advises federal officials on the needs of the elderly.

In 1993, Michael Weston, then working for the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, worked with Stokesberry to hold the first National Conference on Disaster Preparedness for the Elderly. He is now president of Servision, Inc., a company that produces a portable folding hospital-type bed.

Like Stokesberry, Weston said he personally saw how vulnerable seniors are to disasters in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. "More than a million elderly people in Florida live in mobile homes. Many live alone or rely on others for assistance. Many are newcomers who have no experience dealing with disasters.

"They can't stand in line in the sweltering heat waiting for a bag of ice or water. And nobody was ready to meet their needs. There were some painful lessons."

Though services have improved since then, Weston said he'd like to see older people develop a personal disaster plan. The first step, he said, is to register with your county's special needs registry, usually housed in the county emergency management office.

But making a plan isn't quite enough, added Stokesberry. "You have to tell people about it. A lot of them had a plan but they didn't tell anyone what it was. It took weeks to locate some of them."

Senior citizens - and everyone else - should also remember to make a plan for their pets, he said. "One elderly woman went to a shelter with her cat, and the shelter couldn't accept the cat, and so she went home, and she died when her home was crushed by falling debris."

Be careful to distinguish between a population with special needs and a needy population, said Weston. "I view elderly people as a resource. The majority are fit and looking for ways to meaningfully contribute to society."

Plus, there is a discouraging discrepancy, when it comes to disaster preparedness, between "lessons learned" and "lessons applied," lamented Weston.

And that's where the EAGLES - or Elder Action Global Logistical Emergency System - project comes in. The system - proposed by the federal Administration on Aging - aims to provide a response to the needs of seniors with "strike force" impact when a disaster hits. That means training well elders to become "first responders" and help their peers with special needs. Local senior centers would be converted into treatment centers.

The EAGLES system would operate in conjunction with other emergency management offices, but would be self-sustaining in terms of training and logistics. EAGLES participants - both professionals and trained laypeople - would assist and assess new as well as existing clients in an area affected by disaster. A parallel management team would be created at the national level, and would provide support when the needs of elders couldn't be met by the local community.

Part of the efficiency of the EAGLES system is that it would work through each county's existing structure, commented Stokesberry. "Every county in the U.S. is represented by an area agency on aging."

Already, the Rotary Club International has pledged to become an EAGLES partner, and Stokesberry said he hopes to tap into the Citizens Corps as well.

And EAGLES will work before disaster even strikes, said Stokesberry, by assisting elderly people with disaster mitigation. "Some elderly people might be physically incapable of putting shutters up," he said. "Before the storm, an able-bodied elderly person would help them put the shutters up, and help them, say, get their stuff in out of the yard. After the storm, they would help take the shutters down. It's just a little thing but it could make such a difference."

It really boils down to elderly people helping elderly people, summed up Weston. "The idea is to team up a frail elder with a well elder," added Weston, who urged elderly people to take advantage of existing services in their county's agency on aging, and to get involved with EAGLES when the program takes off. "You have to be in the system in order to benefit from the system."

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