Of Sandy, Nor’easters, Elections & Sequesters

Over 100 million Americans are expected to vote in today’s Presidential Elections. But that total may not include thousands of Americans who live in the New Jersey and New York communities hardest hit by last week’s superstorm Sandy, unless they are among the 30 million citizens who had already voted by absentee ballot or early voting. And this is likely to be especially true for older voters, who have the highest voting rates but are among the most vulnerable in disasters, including those wrought by Mother Nature. Many of them may not make it to the polls, perhaps for the first time in their adult lives.

And, if it isn’t awful enough trying to find heat or gasoline or one’s remaining personal effects in Sandy’s aftermath, now comes the imminent threat of another major storm, a major nor’easter sweeping up the New Jersey coastline. More flooding, power outages, shortages and misery likely are in store for New Jersey and New York. As the lead forecaster for the National Weather Service said yesterday, “It won’t be good.”1/ Many senior citizens and other adults with disabilities face a form of double-jeopardy, suffering the storm’s effects like all others in its path but having those effects compounded by their disabilities or other limitations.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted in a report released earlier this year,2/ recent events such as Katrina, “have shown that some characteristics of older adults put them at greater risk of illness and death during many types of emergencies.” As the report states, they “may have impaired mobility, diminished sensory awareness, multiple chronic health conditions, and social and economic limitations – all of which can impair their ability to prepare for, respond to, and adapt during emergencies.” It continues, “If older adults are not able to get the medications, equipment, or special care they need, they can be at increased risk of complications and death during an emergency.”

With Katrina, 71% of those who died were over the age of 65 while they comprised 15% of New Orleans population. The median age of the 465 people who died in Chicago during the 1995 Midwest heat wave was 75. 3/

Thanks to the work of CDC and many others, disaster and emergency planners and responders are learning a great deal about what can be done in advance to protect those who are most vulnerable and to reduce their burdens during and following disasters. Emergency planners must put in place emergency operations plans that address the needs of vulnerable seniors. It is essential that these plans include collaboration from the start among all those who have some responsibility for the well-being of older adults, from first responders to public health agencies to those who know the older population in their community the best, such as senior services providers.

At the same time, many older adults are very resilient and may be a powerful source of support and comfort to those younger than them reeling from effects of a disaster. As another CDC paper (one that I helped write) noted, “By the time adults have lived through six or more decades, they have probably experienced more than one disaster. Many older adults can be an asset during a disaster, calling upon their prior experience, wisdom and mental resilience to survive, help others, and provide reassurance to those who are frightened or depressed by the events.”4/ I think of my mother who survived The Blitz in World War II London, raised a bunch of kids, endured years of chronic health conditions and is one tough gal.

My next blog will address a potentially even greater disaster looming on the horizon, one that bears the innocuous name, “sequester.” But sequester is anything but innocuous. It promises to dwarf Sandy and the nor’easter by affecting all Americans and likely countries around the globe.

That’s how I see it.

 

For a list of information sources about what communities can do to protect older adults during disasters and what older persons can do to prepare themselves send a request to hbabcs@verizon.net. 1/ Green, Huffington Post, Nov. 5, 2012 2/ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Identifying Vulnerable Older Adults and Legal Options for Increasing Their Protection During All-Hazard Emergencies: A Cross-Sector Guide for States and Communities. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2012. 3/ Aldrich N, Benson WF. Disaster Preparedness and the Chronic Disease Needs of Vulnerable Adults, Prev Chronic Dis 2008;5(1). http://www.cdc.gov/pcd//issues/2008/jan/07_0135.htm. 4/ Aldrich N, Benson WF. Disaster Planning Tips for Older Adults and their Families. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 2008. http://www.cdc.gov/aging/pdf/disaster_planning_tips.pdf.