The single biggest death toll from Hurricane Irma hitting Florida in September 2017 was the 12 residents of a nursing home who died from heat exposure afterwards when the home lost its airconditioning in the sweltering heat. This illustrates what scientists who study disasters have known for awhile: older adults are often vulnerable during disasters. Compared to younger persons in disasters, older adults are considered at-risk of increased of death, hospitalization and the effects of chronic health problems such as heart disease, kidney disease, lung disease and diabetes (Glass, 2006). When people are displaced from their homes after a disaster it is frequently older adults who suffer health problems. For example, older adults displaced after Hurricane Katrina had greater odds of a hip fracture one year later (Uscher-Pines). Improved preparedness may have reduced the injury risk since factors that contributed to the injuries included being displaced from one’s home without important personal health aids (e.g., glasses, hearing aides).
Resilient communities begin with prepared individuals and families, yet the public remains largely unprepared. In the first days after a large earthquake electricity, gas, water and telephones may not be working. Police and fire departments will be busy handling serious crises. To be prepared for a disaster, individuals are advised to be prepared to live without running water, electricity, gas and telephones for seven days, and to have the supplies to be self-sufficient (e.g., 7 days of nonperishable food, water, prescription medicines, etc.). Medication supply is particularly important for disaster preparedness. Major disasters can interrupt the infrastructure and services required to get medicines into pharmacies, so getting refills may be difficult for days afterwards. Even though older adults are disproportionately affected by disasters does not mean that they are in general more vulnerable. Indeed older persons with their years of experience can be models of resilience. They may be resources for their communities and families during crises: providing useful knowledge and assistance, looking after neighbors older and frailer than them, and participating in community recovery (Howard, 2017). The goal of improved preparedness is both to minimize harm and help older adults maintain their health and functional capacities so they can contribute to community resilience.
Los Angeles is ranked as the top city in North and South America for the number of people potentially affected by a natural disaster, since both the San Andreas and San Jacinto earthquake faults run through it and it faces constant risks from wildfires, heat waves, floods, debris flows, drought, tsunami and coastal storms (Sundermann). Improving older adult’s disaster preparedness grows more important in the face of a changing climate that will bring more frequent and severe heat waves, forest fires and droughts to the region. Programs to improve disaster preparedness are vital to the safety, wellness and resilience of those age 60+ living in Los Angeles. Yet, after decades of national and local campaigns and even in the aftermath of highly publicized disasters only 30%-45% of older adults are disaster prepared, and these rates have been unchanged for decades (Eisenman). Even respondents who said they are prepared, want to learn more about this topic. Improvements are possible. Evidence-based education programs for older adults to be prepared are available. Older adults can participate in neighborhood resilience planning thereby making communities aware of both their potential needs and contributions to a disaster resilient Los Angeles.
Implement emergency preparedness strategies that engage older adults and individuals with functional/access needs.
There are legal, financial and moral obligations for local jurisdictions to implement inclusive emergency management planning efforts that engage older adults, and in individuals with functional impairments. These vulnerable populations are disproportionately at-risk during emergencies and, therefore, require targeted interventions and resources. The strategies outlined above will help ensure that older and functionally impaired adults are incorporated into emergency planning and response efforts at the regional, neighborhood and household levels, while identifying alternatives for older adults using 911 to report non-medical emergencies.
LA County Office of Emergency Management
5 Step Neighborhood Action Kit
LA City Emergency Management Department