The best advice for anyone living in a coastal community where hurricanes pose a threat is simple and to the point: be prepared.
“The main issues are: get a kit, make a plan, and be informed,” says Victoria Melvin, American Red Cross preparedness associate. Seniors, in particular, she says, can face a host of special circumstances that require even more foresight in planning for the worst. Caregivers of older adults must consider:
“Seniors need to know what to do ahead of time so they’ve had time to put information in place, so they can build their confidence,” Melvin says. “If they know what they’re going to do, it saves time, saves confusion, and gives them piece of mind.” And caregivers, she says, can empower and assist their loved ones in creating and practicing a disaster plan that really works.
Hurricane season runs half the year, from June through November. “Everything should be in place and organized before June 1,” says Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. That means every person ought to have assembled a hurricane preparedness “kit” consisting of essential supplies meant to last for a minimum of five days: one gallon of water per person, per day; nonperishable food and juice; a manual can opener, a battery powered radio, batteries, medications, flashlights, and toiletries. Non-essential “comfort” items might include: extra pillows, blankets, toys, books, and games to help pass the time.
Also important is to prepare a second kit of items needed in case of an evacuation: personal identification, cash and coins, credit cards, an extra set of car and house keys, and important papers, such as your loved one’s birth certificate, deeds, and insurance papers. Put them in an airtight plastic bag to protect them against getting wet. “When you’re out of your house, you’re pretty much on your own,” Feltgen says. “In order to get back in you will have to prove who you are.”
In the U.S., one in five people living in coastal areas say they’re not prepared for a hurricane if one were to strike in the current season, according to a 2007 Harvard School of Public Health survey, of which 40% of respondents were aged 50 and older. To many, the possibility of a hurricane occurring seems remote, Feltgen says. Or, he says, people believe their home could withstand 110 mph-plus winds and that evacuating would be more dangerous than staying. But such mindsets do not reflect the facts, he says. “That’s really playing with fire. You put yourself and entire family at risk of injury and even death,” Feltgen says. All Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastal areas-and up to several hundred miles inland-are at risk of suffering hurricane damage.
The term hurricane is a generic name for a type of low-pressure tropical storm that generally forms near the equator, between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, to the north and south respectively. In the worst cases, category 3, 4, or 5 hurricanes, winds can vary between 111 mph to stronger than 155 mph. They can also result in tornadoes, similar wind storms called microbursts, heavy rains, flooding, and coastal storm surges, which can cause walls of water higher than eighteen feet to come crashing into shore. Storm surges historically cause the most damage during a hurricane and are often the primary reason for evacuations.
The first step in hurricane preparedness planning is to create a network of neighbors, relatives, and friends who can be called upon to help if a hurricane hits. Talk to them about your loved one’s needs and be sure to create a contingency plan in case key contacts aren’t home or able to provide assistance when needed. Keep a current list of their phone numbers near the telephone-and test the numbers to make sure they are current and written down correctly. Be sure to include on the list the local contact numbers for the American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The best and safest evacuation choices include staying with relatives or friends out of the area, checking into a hotel, or pre-admission into a medical facility for those with special health issues. Your loved one’s physician, home health agency, family members, and you, the caregiver, should be involved in deciding the best evacuation option. For seniors who are mobility impaired and live in a high-rise building, purchase an evacuation or escape chair, which allows a person to be quickly and safely transported down stairs.
Take an inventory of any specialized items your loved one might require-such as extra wheelchair batteries, oxygen, catheters, medication, an extra pair of eyeglasses, food for service animals-and include them in their hurricane preparedness kit. Keep a list of the type and model numbers of necessary medical devices. If oxygen is needed, check with the supplier about emergency plans. Use of a respirator or other electric-dependent medical equipment typically calls for special arrangements that can be made with your loved one’s physician. Check with the local power company to see if registration of such equipment is necessary.
Consider how to deal with pets, which are often a key reason people choose to ignore evacuation orders. Shelters and hospitals don’t allow pets, unless they are service animals. A pet-friendly hotel or staying with friends or family are good options. Include pets’ vaccination records in the “important papers” evacuation kit, as well as a leash in the stash of essential supplies.
Locate the public emergency shelter in your loved one’s community. The American Red Cross operates public shelters in areas safe from storm surges-often they are schools and are not equipped for people with special needs. However, most coastal areas have special needs shelters, too. Basic medical assistance will be available, but caregivers must stay with their loved ones at the shelters. Call the local office of the American Red Cross for more information about emergency shelters.
The American Red Cross offers several publications to help people prepare for a disaster. One of the most relevant is Disaster Preparedness for Seniors(ARC A5059), which can be requested by calling your local Red Cross office. It is offered in several languages and formats including audio cassette, Braille, and large print. The FEMA’s free pamphlet, Preparing for Disaster for People with Disabilities and Other Special Needs, can be ordered by calling (800) 480-2520. Another good information resource can be found online at hurricanes.gov.
If your loved one’s physician recommends a hospital or other skilled nursing facility as the best evacuation option, pre-admittance for these senior services must be arranged prior to evacuation. Obtain a pre-admission letter from the physician that says your loved one is to be taken to a specific hospital or nursing home and arrangements have been made for his or her admittance. Your loved one must have this letter when being evacuated. Taking such action ahead of time will help ensure that Medicare will cover such a hospitalization claim, but it doesn’t guarantee that Medicare will pay for any costs that occur after admittance.
The National Weather Service typically issues hurricane advisories within twenty-four to thirty-six hours of a tropical storm threat. Upon learning of an advisory: charge your cell phones and keep vehicles gassed up and ready to roll. If other transportation is needed, line it up and have a fool-proof contingency plan in place. “A lot of people wait until the last possible moment [to fill up with gas] and that’s just foolish,” Feltgen says.
As a storm approaches, put storm shutters on windows or board them up, double check your loved one’s emergency supplies, and clear the yard of loose objects, bicycles, lawn furniture, trash cans, and anything else that could become a dangerous projectile. Swimming pools may remain filled.
Monitor the TV and radio, preferably the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather station. Seek shelter in an interior room such as a bathroom or basement; stay away from windows and exterior doors. Prepare to evacuate, and don’t be fooled by the storm’s calm eye: wait for official word that the danger has subsided before venturing out of the house.
If an evacuation is ordered, notify friends and family and let them know where your loved one is going and how he or she can be reached. Turn off water and electricity at the main valve, breakers, or fuses. Turn off propane gas tanks that serve individual appliances such as a stove or grill. Do not turn off natural gas unless local officials say to do so.
Disaster assistance, if needed, is available through FEMA. To register, call (800) 621-3362 or TTY (800) 462-7585.
Once you’ve got a plan, don’t leave it at that. “Actually practice it to make certain that it really works,” Melvin says. “If you had to leave right now, how would it work?” Involve all the people in your loved one’s network and do a test run to work out any bugs. Every six months, make it a tradition to practice the escape plan, call contact numbers, and assess your loved one’s supplies for expired medications, batteries, and any other items with a limited shelf life.
If a hurricane does strike, the most important thing is to stay calm, experts say. “It’s going to be real hard on everybody,” Feltgen says. “Use that plan.”