Lessons Learned: Planning for Disaster

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, emergency preparedness planners learned that those affected the worst were people with disabilities and the elderly.  Most of those adversely affected lived in the New Orleans metropolitan area; 1,330 people died.  Roughly 71% of them were over 60 years old, and 47% were over 75.  Most died in their homes, and at least 68 died in nursing homes, abandoned by their caregivers.  This has, and should continue, to be a wake-up call to people with disabilities to prepare for disasters before they happen.

It’s not surprising that the elderly are at greater risk for being negatively affected by any type of disaster simply because they are already coping with chronic illness, functional limitations, sensory, physical, and cognitive disabilities.  With reliance on multiple medications, assistance by caregivers and the overall frailness of the elderly, they have greater needs than younger people.  Add into the equation that many elderly and people with disabilities live alone, and things just get worse.

Unfortunately, little forethought had been given to the effect of disaster on the elderly and people with disabilities.  It is time that those of us who are disabled, getting into our senior years, or care for others who fall into one of those categories, demand to be included in emergency preparedness planning at the community level.

Some of the things we’ve learned as a result of Katrina include the following:

  • We must provide emergency preparedness information to older people and people with disabilities that is appropriate to their needs and in a variety of formats (enlarged print, spoken and in Braille).
  • We must assure the elderly that if they are asked to evacuate they know it is a temporary measure and that they won’t be taken to a nursing home (one of their greatest fears).
  • We must educate people with disabilities and the elderly to plan for “sheltering in place” and developing a personal plan that takes into account any special needs they may have.
  • We must train emergency responders concerning the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities including any special emergency management procedures.
  • We must ensure that those agencies and organizations that provide supportive services to people with disabilities and the elderly have a plan in place to continue providing those services during and following a disaster.
  • We must identify those individuals who will need emergency transportation.
  • We must ensure that long-term care facilities have an emergency plan in place so resident care goes uninterrupted.
  • We must address barriers that prevent people with disabilities from accessing public shelters.
  • We must provide for emergency shelters with back-up generators to power life-sustaining medical devices.

We’ve learned many of these lessons the hard way, and at great loss of life.  As a person with a disability, please take the time to work on your own emergency preparedness plan that addresses your specific needs.  Let’s do everything possible to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.