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Disasters are age-blind: Preparation shouldn’t be

Johnny Lauder via AP
In this photo provided by Johnny Lauder, Lauder’s mother, Karen Lauder, 86, is submerged nearly to her shoulders in water that has flooded her home, in Naples, Fla., Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, following Hurricane Ian.

Unless you’re a resident of Florida or South Carolina, Hurricane Ian seems to have already left our collective attention spans and the short news cycle, but its deadly effects linger. Just this past Wednesday we learned of seven new deaths from Vibrio vulnificus, an infection found in storm waters that can lead to necrotizing fasciitis, otherwise known as flesh-eating bacteria.

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30, but that in no way means we should forget about the increasingly dire effects of climate change, particularly on older adults. And in a couple of weeks, we vote in the midterm elections, which may seem a non sequitur, but could not be more closely related, as this election is critical if we wish to be better prepared for the next impending disaster — whether another hurricane in Florida, a fire in California or a heatwave in Washington State. Elections matter, and this one is crucial.

What sort of damage did Hurricane Ian do? There were 2.5 million evacuated; 3.4 million without power; $60 billion-plus in insured losses; a 12-foot-plus storm surge, which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis described as “biblical”; 21.6 inches of rain; and thousands of lightning strikes.

Also — and still rising, as of Oct. 17 — 119 people had died (prior to the infection deaths above), making Hurricane Ian the deadliest storm since 1935. Many of those who died were older adults, and these were not sudden deaths, but drownings. Anyone who was involved in any way (loved ones dying, having to evacuate suddenly as the storm path altered) is traumatized for the long-term, a lingering effect not to be lightly discounted.

Florida, whose population aged 65 and older makes up more than 21 percent of the state’s residents, is relatively well-prepared for hurricanes, but the storm’s path altered unexpectedly, which put different communities in danger and left less time for evacuations. The people who die in such disasters tend to be those who will not or cannot evacuate. Older adults fall into both camps, either they assume the current hurricane will be no worse than the last one they successfully weathered (wrong in this instance) or they have no way of getting out (no vehicle) or no money to pay hiked-up prices needed for lodging. One oft-quoted estimate for evacuation is $1,000.

But even if better prepared, local governments still can’t support the unique needs of older adults during a climate emergency. In Volusia County, Fla., alone, 400 people called for emergency assistance once they realized they needed it, but that county lacked the vehicles to negotiate the floodwaters — and those people were left to fend for themselves.

These situations are highly predictable, and climate scientists have been studying and writing about them for decades. Yet communities aren’t equipped to support older adults during climate disasters, and the federal government isn’t doing enough to help. In fact, it seems only Democrats support climate-related legislation that could prepare and assist older adults in disasters. Senator Bob Casey’s (D-Pa.) READDI Act (S.2658) introduced by him, six other Democratic Senators and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is one of the few proposals to expressly consider older adults and climate change and establish needed programs and requirements to assist older adults with disaster preparedness, yet no Republican has signed on to the bill. Not even Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, who, despite urging the Senate to provide federal disaster relief, either voted against a bill promising relief (Scott) or failed to attend the vote (Rubio).

With the election coming up, we need people to vote for climate change fighters, not deniers, or enablers. We need more leaders who will propose legislative solutions to support older adults now, and our future selves, who will be faced with even more dire climate catastrophes.

The American Society on Aging is pushing for environmental justice advocates to include older adults in their advocacy and policy considerations; FEMA and local disaster relief agencies to focus on older adults in their preparedness and response efforts; and better policies that harness the benefits of volunteerism for older adults, while increasing the number of participants in climate change initiatives.

But first and foremost, everyone needs to vote, and vote wisely, with climate in mind, on Nov. 8.

Peter Kaldes is the president and CEO of the American Society on Aging.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Bernie Sanders Bob Casey Climate change Disaster preparedness disaster relief Emergency Preparedness Florida Hurricane Ian Marco Rubio older adults older Americans Rick Scott Ron DeSantis senior citizens South Carolina

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