Last Updated: April 4, 2013
The best advice for anyone living in a coastal community where
hurricanes pose a threat is simple and to the point: be
"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:
- Whether their loved ones' residences are safe (If it's an assisted
living community, does it have a disaster plan in place that
takes into consideration the worst-case scenario, the repercussions
of a category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane?);
- What to do in the case of an evacuation, such as where to go
and fail-safe transportation options for getting there;
- the possibility that their loved ones could be trapped inside
their houses without power or running water for a week or
"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."
Be Aware of the Threat
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.
Create a Hurricane Preparedness Plan
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
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
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.
Plan for Worst-Case Scenarios
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 http://www.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.
When an Advisory Is Issued
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,"
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.
Practice Your Plan
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."