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FL - Hurricane Ian’s Deadly Impact on Florida Seniors Exposes Need for New Preparation Strategies

All kinds of natural disasters — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, dangerous heat waves — pose substantial risks to older adults. Yet, not enough seniors prepare for these events in advance, and efforts to encourage them to do so have been largely unsuccessful.

The most recent horrific example was Hurricane Ian, the massive storm that in September smashed into Florida’s southwestern coast — a haven for retirees — with winds up to 150 mph and storm surges exceeding 12 feet in some areas. At least 120 people died, most of them in Florida. Of those who perished, two-thirds were 60 or older. Many reportedly drowned and were found in their homes.

Why didn’t more older adults leave for safer areas, as authorities recommended? Understanding this is critically important as the population of older people expands and natural disasters become more frequent and intense with climate change.

“I think the story of Hurricane Ian that people will remember is the story of people who didn’t evacuate,” said Jeff Johnson, AARP’s Florida state director.

Even before the storm, there were worrisome signs that disaster preparedness was lagging. In an AARP survey this summer of 1,005 Florida residents 45 and older, 67% reported having a natural disaster emergency plan, compared with 75% in 2019. The declines were most notable among people with low incomes (less than $50,000 a year) and those who owned their homes.

Meanwhile, 61% of Florida residents 45 and older said they planned to shelter in place during the next bad storm. In 2019, the comparable figure was 55%.

Johnson said concerns about the covid-19 pandemic and inflation’s impact on budgets may have contributed to “a lot of people who were just not mentally prepared to leave.” More broadly, he faulted disaster preparation checklists that target seniors.

Mostly, these resources tell older adults to complete a long list of tasks before a crisis occurs. “Coming out of Ian, what’s become clear is that giving seniors materials with lots of steps they need to follow ends up being overwhelming,” Johnson told me. “The checklists aren’t working.”

Among the items that seniors are advised to assemble: enough nonperishable food, water, and medications for several days; cash for 30 days of living expenses; hearing aids and glasses; flashlights and battery-powered lamps; extra batteries; and first-aid supplies.

Beyond that, older adults are encouraged to create a list of people who can help them in an emergency, familiarize themselves with evacuation routes, arrange for transportation, and compile essential documents such as wills, powers of attorney, and lists of their medical providers and medications.

Doing all this is especially challenging for older adults with hearing and vision impairments, cognitive problems, difficulties with mobility, and serious chronic illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes.

Also at heightened risk are seniors without cars, cellphones that broadcast emergency alerts, extra money for lodging, or family members and friends who can help them get organized or take them in, if necessary, according to Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center and a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

“It’s not age alone that renders elderly people vulnerable in disasters,” she noted. “It’s the intersection of age with other social forces” that affects people who are poor and represent racial and ethnic minorities.

This lesson has been painfully learned during the covid pandemic, which has killed enormous numbers of vulnerable seniors. But it hasn’t been incorporated into disaster preparedness and response yet.

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