A string of devastating major natural disasters in the last few months have given us near-constant reminders that it’s important to be prepared for these kinds of events. Another big lesson re-learned from these catastrophes is that senior and elderly people are more vulnerable than most.
In Houston, a striking photo of nursing home residents sitting in waist-deep water went viral in the days after Hurricane Harvey struck the area in August. In Puerto Rico, hospitals and nursing homes have struggled to maintain care as many areas remain without power in the weeks since Hurricane Maria.
Natural disaster-related evacuations can come suddenly, such as earlier this month when thousands had to flee their homes overnight as fires spread without warning in Northern California. Other disasters, like hurricanes, can create weeks of uncertainty ahead of time.
We consulted some experts, who recommended these eight crucial steps for older adults to stay safe both during and after a natural disaster.
1. Don’t hesitate to evacuate.
"When it comes to senior citizens, a lot of times they don't want to leave their home,"said Stephanie Allen, who owns SYNERGY HomeCare in Houston and Beaumont, Texas.
Allen is also a paramedic and registered nurse, so after Hurricane Harvey hit, once she made sure all of her own clients were safe she jumped in an ambulance to make rescues. At one point, she waded through waist-deep water to get to a home and found a man sitting in a wheelchair and a woman floating on a mattress.
She urged family members to be more insistent when checking on aging loved ones if they don’t want to leave. Sometimes, older people might refuse help because they don’t want to be a burden on their families.
"I heard it more than once, ‘We didn't want to be a burden to our family who would have to drive here to get us,’" Allen said. "Don't wait until the last minute and don't be hesitant to leave, you can always go back."
2. If you don’t evacuate, stay put.
When the waters in Houston finally subsided, Allen said that rescuers found elderly people in their home who had drowned trying to evacuate at the last minute. Some had tried to drive on the flooding streets and were stuck when their car became inoperable. But rescuers had no way of knowing they were there and couldn’t find them.
While it was difficult to anticipate just how destructive Harvey would be -- Allen said she’d never seen anything like it in 20 years as a paramedic -- if you need to be rescued it’s better to stay where you can be easily found. If a storm’s coming, and you aren’t planning to evacuate, let your local emergency agencies know where you are so they can check on you after it’s over.
3. Think carefully about trying to travel in the immediate aftermath.
It’s important to keep in mind that in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, if you go traveling, even for short distances, you might run into unexpected problems like impassible roads because of floods, downed trees or power lines. You should think about what kind of conditions you’re equipped to handle before venturing out.
Mark White and Jenny May, who run Senior Helpers of Naples and Bonita Springs in Florida, said that while waiting for Hurricane Irma they rented a big SUV to navigate the roads and couldn’t have gotten around to their clients without it.
Many of their clients had already evacuated, but some still needed supplies, especially as roads remained impassable for days and power was still out.
“It looked like a war zone,” White said. Trees were down everywhere and some roads were flooded up to a foot – conditions that would be impassible in many vehicles.
Photo of Hurricane Irma's aftermath, courtesy of Mark White
4. Make sure you have enough supplies.
When preparing for a disaster, don’t underestimate what you’re going to need. Make sure you have plenty of canned food, water and flashlight batteries. Keep enough on hand to last you five days.
After experiencing Irma, May said when the next storm is about to hit, she’ll visit her clients in person to make sure they have enough supplies on hand. She ended up taking in one 93-year-old client who said she was prepared but only had a couple gallons of water and no canned food.
For seniors, it’s also important to be stocked up on medication before a major storm hits. And consider what else you or your loved ones might need, for example extra propane tanks if you rely on propane for cooking or heating. No matter how prepared you think you are, there’s probably something you’ll find you overlooked once disaster strikes.
Also keep in mind the kind of disaster you’re preparing for. Are you in an area particularly prone to earthquakes? Fires? Flooding? Asking these kinds of questions will help you be better equipped for the worst.
5. Have important medical information handy.
"The biggest disaster that happens to seniors is on the medical side," said Meghan McPherson, Assistant Director of Adelphi University's Center for Health Innovation and a part-time faculty member in the school's emergency management program.
"People don't know what medications they take, when they take it and why they take it," McPherson said. "They know they take the pink pill at 6 p.m., but a high blood pressure pill is very different than a low blood pressure pill."
All information about medical issues and medication should be written down and stored in different locations. Some documents could be in a large plastic bag on the refrigerator to grab quickly, saved on a thumb drive or uploaded to the Internet so it’s accessible anywhere there’s Internet service.
People with chronic conditions like dementia should have medical bracelets with specific instructions handy in case they are separated from their caregiver during an evacuation.
"Their caregiver is there all the time to basically protect them, and if they get separated somehow it's important that they have information on there that will get them the right kind of help," McPherson said.
6. Alert your local authorities to any special needs.
Before a disaster, make sure that local authorities know if your loved one will be home and any special needs they might have. For example, if your loved one uses an oxygen tank, make sure that the power company is aware of that so they’re on a high-priority list for restoration.
Likewise, if your loved one does have to evacuate and ends up at a shelter, make sure to check in with the medical professionals on hand there and let them know about any conditions. If you’ve prepared their medical documents this shouldn’t be a problem, but also make sure you have a bracelet if necessary.
7. Have a communication plan.
"Landlines don't go out as often, that infrastructure is pretty solid, it's been there for many years," McPherson said, urging people to maintain a landline phone for emergencies even as most people switch to cellphones.
If you only have a cellphone, try sending text messages rather than calling -- they will go through when service is available so the message will be sent eventually.
And if you know someone out of the area, make a plan with your elderly loved one to check in with that person first. If one person removed from the disaster is coordinating safety checks, it can keep everyone more informed.
8. Find out what the emergency plan is for your loved one’s assisted living or nursing home
Like many others, McPherson was alarmed when she saw the photo of the nursing home in Texas with waist-deep water. She knew that by law, the facilty should have had a plan for coping with natural disasters, but it wasn’t followed or wasn’t good enough, she said.
"One of the biggest issues is, they make the plan, they file it with the government, and then they never look at it again," she said. "So when something bad happens, they pull it off the shelf and say, ‘so now what are we supposed to do?’"
If your loved one is entering a residential care facility, ask staff about what their natural disaster plan is and if it’s ever been exercised. Find out what their evacuation strategy is, how family notification would work, and how many staff members will be traveling with the residents. As important as it is to do your own preparation, it’s also key to make sure the people you trust to protect your aging loved ones have done theirs.