Meteorologists have pinpointed 10 September as the peak of hurricane season. September is the most active month of the year for Atlantic hurricane season, and 2019 is no exception. In early September, Dorian devastated the Bahamas, and wreaked havoc on the southeastern United States. Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico in September 2017, just weeks after Harvey and Irma touched town, while other late-summer storms – most notoriously Katrina in 2005 – have left death and destruction in their paths. Climate experts say rising temperatures will increase the risk of more intense storms. Temperature increases also may hasten melting glaciers and ice caps, and rising sea levels – making coastal flooding more severe when storms hit shore.
Hurricanes have far reaching impacts for all people, yet these impacts are particularly devastating for older people, especially those already suffering from poor health and financial insecurity. Older people make up 12% of the overall U.S. population, yet they made up two-thirds of the estimated 1,800 people who died in Katrina, and more than half of the 117 who succumbed to Hurricane Sandy.
What makes older people vulnerable? It’s not simply the frailty of old age that killed these victims; most deaths were a consequence of environmental and social factors that the victims could not overcome. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, two-thirds of older victims either drowned or dead from illness or injuries brought about from being trapped in their houses, surrounded by water. The remaining one-third fell to injuries, infections, and other health conditions worsened by the difficult evacuation process. The physical wear-and-tear of evacuation can hasten the fatal effects of pre-existing health conditions like heart disease or weakened immune systems. Some frail older people seek medical care in local hospitals that have lost power and can’t provide life-sustaining treatments like oxygen. The most tragic case occurred during 2017’s Hurricane Irma, when twelve Florida nursing home residents, ages 71 to 99, died of heat-related causes after the facility’s air conditioning failed.
Some disaster experts say that deaths occur following hurricanes and floods because local residents fail to evacuate promptly. Yet for older people, this is less a matter of willful defiance and more a matter of an inability to comply with evacuation orders. Poor and socially isolated older people are least capable of evacuating. Some stay put because they have nowhere to go, and no one to help them move. People with cognitive impairments may not understand how sever the risk is, and may require help in making timely decisions. The notion of relocating to an area where one has no social ties and has to start over again is also difficult. Some lack the social support to help them safely prepare for the storm. The first North Carolina fatality of Dorian this month was an 85-year-old man who fell from a ladder while trying to prepare for the storm.
Others don’t want to abandon the few meager possessions they have, a legitimate concern for destitute older people. For socially isolated elders whose main source of emotional support is a pet, evacuation to a shelter may mean a separation (often permanent) from one’s faithful friend, as shelters are not dog- and cat-friendly. Some one-third of older pet owners in the Miami-Dade area needed assistance evacuating with their pets. Older people often live on the city’s outskirts, considerable distances for the area’s few pet-friendly shelters. These obstacles in traveling to the pet-friendly shelters were a major factor in their failure to evacuate.
For elderly people who decide to stay in their communities, services and supports may not be readily available. During a major disaster, local medical resources like hospitals and EMT services may be overwhelmed and out-of-state assistance like disaster relief teams may face obstacles reaching remote, isolated, or frightened older people. Pharmacies often are closed or without power and older people may lack the transportation, money, or assistance needed to obtain additional medications. In some cases, support services provide only a short-term fix. In the case of Katrina, the city of New Orleans received federal and state money that paid for buses, trucks, and trains to relocate local residences to government-funded shelters. Yet the stress of the move and uncertainty about what the future would hold after leaving the shelter kept many frail and socially isolated adults in their unsafe homes and communities.
Life also doesn’t necessarily get easier for elderly people after the storms pass. Older people are more likely to have been displaced after storms. They experience high levels of community and storm damage that prevents them from returning to their houses. If older people are to withstand the escalating number of September storms projected to strike in the coming years they need, pet-friendly shelters, family and community support, and safe housing, health care, and transportation.