WASHINGTON (CN) – Images of seniors in wheelchairs sitting waist deep in the waters which flooded their nursing home after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston told a tale of a tragedy that could have been avoided with the help of greater federal investment and oversight, a bipartisan senate committee agreed on Wednesday.
With the annual height of hurricane season rapidly approaching, members of Senate Special Committee on Aging said the lessons from past disasters must be learned today, “when the sky is blue.”
In the fallout of storms like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, numerous federal reporters have informed how agencies like FEMA and others address vulnerable populations in a disaster scenario. But specific, detailed and long term planning on the state by state level is still lacking, said Karen DeSalvo, a physician and former health commissioner for the city of New Orleans.
Just days after Harvey flooded Houston, Hurricane Irma barreled up the Florida coast, unleashing torrential winds and rains which eventually knocked out power to an assisted living facility in Hollywood, Florida. Eight elderly residents died from exposure to the heat. The facility’s air conditioning took days to restore as millions of other residents went without power after Irma’s destruction.
“Emergency preparedness is much more than a checklist,” DeSalvo said,” It’s really about [conducting drills] and keeping an eye on incoming and ongoing fuel supplies for generators.”
Kathryn Hyer, a professor and director of policy at the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida, confirmed DeSavlo’s prescription.
Nursing homes only became part of local emergency response protocol operations in 2004, she said. It was the repeated hurricanes that crisscrossed Florida over a short time which showed just how underserved the aging population is, Hyer said.
In a series of interviews, Hyer discovered facility administrators wrestling with challenges impacting seniors. Some of those challenges, even the seemingly no-brainer types like evacuating ahead of a storm, aren’t that cut and dry. Knowing how and when and who can evacuate can spell life or death, she said.
Even transporting evacuees from shelter to shelter as they run from water and hide from wind can be a challenge.
“Administrators recognized these patients declining and saw their own staff hurt after trying to move residents,” she said. In some instances, studies showed, administrators believed seniors would be better served staying where they are.”
With assistance from the National Institute on Aging, Hyer found more dismal data. The effects on nursing home residents from storms such as Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike means that some 36,000 nursing home residents exposed on the Gulf of Mexico had a 30 to 90 day mortality rate increase, she said.
“Regardless of having an evacuation plan or shelter in place,” Hyer said. “The very act of evacuating prior to a storm increases the probability of death to 90 days and increased hospital stays independent of all other factors.”
She told the committee that while states need to work on improving county-to-county emergency management techniques, the federal government would continue to have a vested interest in the issue.
Jay Delaney, fire chief and emergency management coordinator for the City of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania admitted to the committee that caring for seniors, especially those who are fearful of leaving or are merely stubborn, makes preparedness for the aging a “tough nut to crack.”
“When you have to evacuate 15,000 people in 10 hours, you don’t have time to say, ‘Mam or sir, here’s why you have to go,’” Delaney said.
Delaney said that for nursing homes and assisted living facilities, it is “critical” they have detailed shelter-in-place plans.
But he went on to say that the federal government needs to step up and take a greater role in protecting one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations.
“We’re getting better at these plans, but there needs to be an agency that [oversee these nursing home-related issues,]” Delaney said.