Senate Hearing Focuses on Helping Seniors Survive Disasters

During a September 20 hearing on “Disaster Preparedness for Older Americans” held by the Senate Special Aging Committee led by Committee Chair Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Bob Casey (D-PA), witnesses spoke about the importance of building resilient homes, creating strong networks, ensuring the civil rights of people with disabilities, and sharing data. The committee and witnesses acknowledged the vulnerability of seniors and people with disabilities and stressed the importance of creating better systems to save lives during emergencies.

Disasters often mean a loss of electrical power, so attending to the needs of people who are electricity-dependent – e.g., those who rely on electric-powered medical equipment - should be prioritized. Following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, former New Orleans Health Commissioner Dr. Karen DeSalvo worked with the Department of Health and Human Services to create emPOWER to help map where electricity-dependent people live. She recommended that HUD share its data to more accurately map these populations.

The witnesses, including Paul Timmons Jr., president and CEO of Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, and Jay Delaney, fire chief and emergency management coordinator of the City of Wilkes-Barre, PA, spoke about the importance of having detailed public emergency plans for assisted living facilities, senior centers, and other housing serving vulnerable populations. They stressed that community groups and governmental agencies should form strong networks to help them quickly provide care.

Stronger regulations may also be necessary to ensure seniors are safe during and after a disaster. Dr. Kathryn Hyer, director of the Florida Policy Exchange Centre on Aging at the University of South Florida, explained that the evacuation of vulnerable populations can lead to increases in fatalities, so the best option is to shelter in place unless and until that is not feasible. Installing generators and improving building codes will be critical to ensure sheltering in place can be accommodated.