When Dis­as­ter Strikes

As the pop­u­la­tion ages and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters grow in­creas­ingly calami­tous, Alex Roslin says it’s time emer­gency agen­cies de­vel­oped plans to look af­ter those who are al­ways hardest hit – se­niors

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It’s time that emer­gency agen­cies plan for those who are hardest hit — se­niors

THE FLOOD­WA­TER from the Rivière des Prairies rose slowly at first, then quickly. Rene LeBlanc, 71, watched with great alarm a block away from the river, on Des Maçons Street in Mon­treal’s West Is­land.

LeBlanc had spent a life­time think­ing about dis­as­ters and risks of var­i­ous kinds. Now re­tired, he had worked 45 years in in­sur­ance, spe­cial­iz­ing in loss pre­ven­tion. When the river over­flowed onto his street, he sprang into ac­tion, pick­ing things off the floor in his base­ment in case it was in­un­dated.

LeBlanc was still down­stairs with his daugh­ter and two sons, who had come to help, when the rapidly ris­ing flood­wa­ter en­cir­cled his house and started to pour down an out­side stair­case that led to the base­ment. A wall of wa­ter sent the door fly­ing open with a loud bang and crashed in­side, pro­pel­ling the fur­nace through a wall.

LeBlanc had just enough time to shut off the power and get out of the base­ment be­fore it was sub­merged in six feet of wa­ter four min­utes later. And so their base­ment re­mained for five days un­til the flood­wa­ter started to re­cede. LeBlanc and his wife had to stay else­where for three months while re­pair­ing their house. They were among 4,000 peo­ple in 278 Que­bec mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties forced to evac­u­ate due to spring­time floods in May 2017. (Nine months later, as of mid-De­cem­ber, about 300 peo­ple had still not been able to move back into their homes be­cause of on­go­ing re­pairs.)

Se­niors were among those hardest hit. They rep­re­sented about a quar­ter of those who got help from the Red Cross, with one in 20 aged 80 and up. Yet emer­gency ef­forts to help se­niors were hap­haz­ard and poorly co-or­di­nated, LeBlanc said. Se­niors on Des Maçons Street were left to their own de­vices, re­ly­ing on fam­ily or neigh­bours to evac­u­ate, he said, with no help from au­thor­i­ties.

“I didn’t ex­pect to be al­most aban­doned and for­got­ten,” he noted. “We ex­pect this in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, not in Canada. Se­niors had a lot of stress. We saw noth­ing for them. We had to count on each other. The au­thor­i­ties weren’t pre­pared for the event and were un­sure how to re­act.”

A nearby res­i­dent, Marie-Josée Auger, got out her ca­noe to evac­u­ate flooded se­niors. “They were shocked and in tears,” she said. “Se­niors were com­pletely de­pen­dent on their fam­i­lies. If they didn’t have fam­i­lies, they were alone.”

The prob­lems con­tin­ued af­ter the flood, as se­niors strug­gled to de­ci­pher the prov­ince’s con­vo­luted, glacially slow process to get dis­as­ter re­lief funds. Even with LeBlanc’s back­ground in in­sur­ance and a 12year stint as a city coun­cil­lor, he still laboured to nav­i­gate the bu­reau­cracy. “You have to leave mes­sage af­ter mes­sage. They don’t re­spond to emails. It’s ab­so­lutely in­ef­fi­cient and con­fus­ing. Dou­ble that when you’re a se­nior,” he said, re­count­ing how he helped other se­niors grap­ple with the process. “Their eyes were full of tears, say­ing, ‘What do I do?’ They have a feel­ing there’s no­body around to help.”

In Septem­ber, to protest the botched govern­ment re­sponse, LeBlanc helped or­ga­nize a demon­stra­tion that drew about 100 an­gry flood vic­tims to march out­side the of­fice of pro­vin­cial pub­lic se­cu­rity min­is­ter Martin Coi­teux. One 66-year-old woman car­ried a sign that read I Want to Go Home.

As dis­as­ters strike more of­ten and harder thanks to cli­mate change, se­niors are pay­ing an es­pe­cially steep price yet emer­gency of­fi­cials in Canada and else­where have been slow to re­spond to a fast­grow­ing list of tragedies.

When Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina hit Louisiana in 2005, more than 70 per cent of the 1,800 peo­ple killed were more than 60 years old. Half were 75 or older. Al­most 70 nurs­ing home res­i­dents died in their fa­cil­i­ties, many re­port­edly aban­doned by their care­tak­ers.

Ka­t­rina was a wakeup call for emer­gency man­age­ment au­thor­i­ties. The hor­ror of the deaths helped con­vince the U.S. Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency (FEMA) to cre­ate an Of­fice of Dis­abil­ity In­te­gra­tion and Co­or­di­na­tion, which im­proved ac­cess for se­niors to emer­gency ser­vices such as shel­ters, trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

FEMA also con­sulted on dis­as­ter plan­ning with AARP, the main se­niors as­so­ci­a­tion in the U.S. Some states, such as Louisiana, fol­lowed suit with sim­i­lar mea­sures. (FEMA told Zoomer that Cana­di­ans vis­it­ing the U.S. can use emer­gency ser­vices dur­ing a dis­as­ter – for ex­am­ple, shel­ters, food aid and crisis coun­selling.)

Still, se­niors keep get­ting wal­loped in dis­as­ters. They made up

half of the fa­tal­i­ties in Hur­ri­cane Sandy, which struck the U.S. east coast in 2012. In the wild­fires in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia last Oc­to­ber, the av­er­age age of those killed was 79. In the 2011 earth­quake and tsunami in Ja­pan, nearly twothirds of those killed were over 60.

The new mea­sures also didn’t help se­niors liv­ing in the La Vita Bella nurs­ing home in Dick­in­son, Texas, when Hur­ri­cane Har­vey struck last Au­gust. The res­i­dents, most of whom used wheel­chairs and oxy­gen-breath­ing de­vices, were told not to evac­u­ate but sim­ply ride out the calamity. When wa­ter flooded the nurs­ing home, owner Trudy Lamp­son called au­thor­i­ties for help but was told first re­spon­ders couldn’t come. Lamp­son’s son-in-law turned to Twit­ter, post­ing a photo of the se­niors sit­ting and wad­ing in waist-deep murky brown wa­ter. When the photo went vi­ral, the Na­tional Guard res­cued the res­i­dents.

Se­niors stay­ing at the Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter in Hol­ly­wood Hills, Fla., weren’t as for­tu­nate when Hur­ri­cane Irma struck in Septem­ber. The nurs­ing home lost power and couldn’t op­er­ate its air con­di­tion­ing, lead­ing to swel­ter­ing heat that killed 12 se­niors. The 12 heat-re­lated deaths were ruled to be homi­cides amid re­ports that poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion and plan­ning con­trib­uted to the tragedy.

Paul Tim­mons has been warn- ing about the risks to se­niors for years. He is pres­i­dent of Port­light In­clu­sive Dis­as­ter Strate­gies, a South Car­olina-based non- profit that de­liv­ers med­i­cal sup­plies to se­niors and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties dur­ing dis­as­ters, in­clud­ing Har­vey and Irma.

A week af­ter the Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter tragedy, Tim­mons didn’t mince words in tes­ti­mony he gave at a U.S. Se­nate hear­ing on dis­as­ters and se­niors. Se­niors “have once again paid the price for our col­lec­tive emer­gency plan­ning short­falls,” he said. “Most have been de­nied their ba­sic right to equal ac­cess to fed­er­ally funded emer­gency pro­grams and ser­vices.” In an in­ter­view, he said se­niors are still of­ten not con­sulted in dis­as­ter plan­ning, while emer­gency meas- ures are in many cases in­ac­ces­si­ble to them. “Sel­dom do we run across a shel­ter that does not have an ac­cess is­sue. Al­most never do you find ac­ces­si­ble trans­porta­tion made avail­able,” he said.

“It is hor­ri­fy­ing,” AARP Florida spokesman David Bruns said of the Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter deaths. “We here in Florida thought we had this sit­u­a­tion cov­ered. Irma showed we did not. Mother Na­ture has a way of find­ing the flaws you didn’t know ex­isted.” He has called on the state to re­quire se­niors’ homes to have backup power and reg­u­larly tested emer­gency plans. He said au­thor­i­ties should also promptly visit se­niors’ homes when dis­as­ters strike to see if help is needed.

As the pop­u­la­tion ages and dis­as­ters get worse, Bruns says, “We’re al­ways a step be­hind the emerg­ing re­al­ity. In Florida, we have one of the best emer­gency man­age­ment sys­tems in the world. What is it like in places whereit’sno­tas­good?”One­ex­am­ple is the Caribbean, where thou­sands of va­ca­tion­ing Cana­di­ans were stranded when Hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria struck last Septem­ber. Many were even­tu­ally evac­u­ated with help from the Cana­dian govern­ment, but lo­cal res­i­dents didn’t fare as well. Three months af­ter Maria struck Puerto Rico, power was still out on 45 per cent of the is­land, in­clud­ing in the town of San Lorenzo, which suf­fered a di­rect hit

by the hur­ri­cane’s eye. “My house was shak­ing like an earth­quake,” lo­cal res­i­dent Rubén Ca­ma­cho, 70, told Zoomer. Af­ter­ward, he and his wife had to move from the is­land be­cause she needs a fridge to pre­serve med­i­ca­tions. They re­lo­cated to their daugh­ter’s three­bed­room apart­ment in Or­lando, Fla., where 11 mem­bers of the Ca­ma­cho fam­ily have lived since Septem­ber. The only govern­ment help they’ve re­ceived is food stamps. Ca­ma­cho is still wait­ing for an an­swer to his re­quest for aid to re­pair his home. “Se­niors suf­fered a lot. If they had no fam­ily close, it was dif­fi­cult.”

Canada also ap­pears to lag well be­hind main­land U.S., as au­thor­i­ties here seem par­tic­u­larly slow to rec­og­nize se­niors’ needs in dis­as­ters, con­sult them in plan­ning and en­sure emer­gency mea­sures are ac­ces­si­ble. What’s worse, Canada is mired in a patch­work of dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness in var­i­ous ju­ris­dic­tions, un­der­min­ing ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency.

In flood-im­pacted Que­bec, the pub­lic se­cu­rity min­istry couldn’t name a sin­gle se­niors group it had con­sulted as part of its dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness and didn’t have any data on how se­niors are af­fected by dis­as­ters or how ac­ces­si­ble emer­gency ser­vices are for se­niors. The prov­ince seems to wash its hands of re­spon­si­bil­ity, say­ing emer­gency pre­pared­ness is largely the re­spon­si­bil­ity of in­di­vid­u­als and mu- nic­i­pal­i­ties. “It is pri­mar­ily up to cit­i­zens to en­sure they and their fam­ily are safe [in a dis­as­ter],” depart­ment spokesman Olivier Cantin said in an email.

Que­bec mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties don’t seem to be do­ing much bet­ter. Un­der the prov­ince’s Loi sur la sécu­rité civile, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are re­quired to cre­ate an emer­gency man­age­ment plan that ad­dresses lo­cal pop­u­la­tion risks, in­clud­ing those to groups such as se­niors. Yet, 17 years af­ter the law was adopted in 2001, only 60 per cent of mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have such a plan, Cantin ac­knowl­edged. He didn’t re­spond to emailed ques­tions ask­ing why the prov­ince had not re­quired mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to act.

Na­tion­ally, the re­sponse is poor, too. The fed­eral govern­ment’s Emer­gency Man­age­ment Frame­work, which gives guid­ance to dis­as­ter man­age­ment per­son­nel across the coun­try, does not men­tion se­niors once. No se­niors group is rep­re­sented on a fed­eral ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee that ad­vises the govern­ment on dis­as­ter risk re­duc­tion.

The mes­sage seems to be: se­niors must help them­selves. An­drew Gow­ing, spokesman for the fed­eral pub­lic safety min­istry, emailed a link with tips on how se­niors can cre­ate an emer­gency plan. It sug­gests mak­ing an emer­gency con­tact list of peo­ple who can help you, fa­mil­iar­iz­ing your­self with es­cape routes and pre­par­ing an emer­gency kit.

Crit­ics say this kind of ap­proach may give use­ful ad­vice, but it can also cre­ate a false sense of se­cu­rity and, worse, de­flects from govern­ment re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple. Paul Tim­mons of the group Port­light said it’s tan­ta­mount to blam­ing se­niors for the fail­ings of au­thor­i­ties. “The po­ten­tial for scape­goat­ing [se­niors] is rife. It is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of peo­ple in this busi­ness [of dis­as­ter man­age­ment] to get this right,” he said.

To il­lus­trate the prob­lem, Tim mons ,58, cites his own ex­pe­ri­ences when Hur­ri­cane Matthew hit the U.S. eastern seaboard last Oc­to­ber. “I prob­a­bly have a bet­ter plan than most peo­ple,” he said. “Fif­teen min­utes into it, my plan turned to shit. That’s be­cause th­ese things are chaotic.” He got stuck with other flee­ing peo­ple in high­way grid­lock,

sep­a­rated from his wife who had the mis­for­tune of fall­ing and need­ing to go to the hospi­tal with a dis­lo­cated shoul­der, just as Matthew bore down. “This was ev­ery bit as shitty of a day as it sounds,” he said.

Doreen Need­ham, 87, weeps as she reads her di­ary en­try about “the worst day of my life” – the day in June 2013 when the over­flow­ing High­wood River forced her and hus­band Lyle out of their home in High River, Alta., just south of Cal­gary.

As flood­wa­ter in­un­dated the town – and many other Al­berta com­mu­ni­ties – the power went off, and the Need­hams couldn’t open their garage door to es­cape by car. “I was feel­ing very sick watch­ing the wa­ter ris­ing up the front steps,” she said.

At one point, Need­ham saw a gera­nium plant float­ing by her house. She called to a neigh­bour, who was stand­ing in the ris­ing wa­ter. “I’m send­ing you a bou­quet!” she said. But as the wa­ter level kept go­ing up, so did her panic. “I was pre­par­ing my­self for death. I lay on the couch, hop­ing that would help,” she reads from her di­ary and bursts into tears.

The Need­hams were res­cued a few hours later by mo­tor­boat. They had to live else­where for a month while they cleaned out their flooded base­ment. Need­ham and a lo­cal pho­tog­ra­pher, Jane Rus­sell, later recorded more than 200 sto­ries from flood vic­tims in a book ti­tled Sto­ries of the High River Flood.

Writ­ing the book was “part of the heal­ing process,” Need­ham said. “We [se­niors] were prob­a­bly dev­as­tated more than younger peo­ple be­cause they have more en­ergy to snap back. I find any­thing I get anx­ious about al­most puts me in that panic again.” To­day, she tries to fo­cus on the bright side. “Hey, the flood helped me clean up my base­ment!”

Jen­nifer McManus has seen first­hand how dis­as­ters can es­pe­cially im­pact se­niors, who of­ten need more time to get back on their feet and who feel more acute stress [when they’re forced to leave their com­mu­nity]. As head of the Red Cross in Al­berta and the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, she’s been busy cop­ing with some of Canada’s worstever dis­as­ters. Apart from the 2013 flood, which forced about 100,000 from their homes, there was also the 2011 Slave Lake wild­fire, which led to the evac­u­a­tion of 7,000, and the 2016 Fort McMur­ray wild­fire, which forced 80,000 to flee.

Like else­where, se­niors in Al­berta “are of­ten im­pacted in unique ways,” McManus said. “It was re­ally hard on our teams be­cause the needs [of se­niors] were so high and liv­ing con­di­tions were very chal­leng­ing [dur­ing the evac­u­a­tions].” She said au­thor­i­ties need to work to­gether to help se­niors in dis­as­ters. Emer­gency of­fi­cials should do more mock ex­er­cises fo­cus­ing on in­te­grat­ing se­niors and make emer­gency mea­sures fully ac­ces­si­ble. Dis­as­ter alerts also should go out in a va­ri­ety of ways, not only via dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, which many se­niors don’t use.

“Ac­ces­si­bil­ity is an area where col­lec­tively we can im­prove greatly,” she said. “I think we could do much more proac­tive work in draw­ing on the ex­per­tise of those who work with se­niors ev­ery day.” Se­niors should be seen as an im­por­tant re­source in a dis­as­ter, McManus added. “They have a wealth of wis­dom, knowl­edge and re­silience and are a tremen­dous calm­ing force in shel­ters be­cause of their ex­pe­ri­ence deal­ing with ad­ver­sity.”

The Al­berta Emer­gency Man­age­ment Au­thor­ity, which co-or­di­nates dis­as­ter re­sponse in the prov­ince, didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. No se­niors groups are rep­re­sented on a coun­cil of non-profit groups that ad­vises the prov­ince on dis­as­ter man­age­ment.

Back in Mon­treal, LeBlanc was al­most fin­ished the re­pairs to his house as Christ­mas 2017 ap­proached. The fi­nal job: re­build­ing the stairs to his base­ment. He lamented lost Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions, fam­ily pic­tures, sou­venirs and fur­ni­ture – all trashed in the flood. He, too, said se­niors need a voice in dis­as­ter plan­ning and should never again be for­got­ten in an emer­gency, like he be­lieves they were in the Que­bec flood. “Here we are seven months later, and there are still a lot of un­re­solved con­se­quences. What’s go­ing to hap­pen if we get a big one?” he asks. “Be­cause this was just a warn­ing as far as I’m con­cerned.” It’s a ques­tion he hopes we aren’t still ask­ing when the next dis­as­ter strikes.

QUE­BEC In the 2017 floods, the prov­ince’s emer­gency ef­forts to help se­niors were “hap­haz­ard” and “poorly co-or­di­nated.”

TEXAS Dam­age from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey in 2017 forced th­ese nurs­ing-home res­i­dents to wait for help in flood waters that had risen to waist lev­els.

AL­BERTA The 2011 fires in Slave Lake and the 2016 fires in Fort McMur­ray left the Red Cross scram­bling to find suit­able tem­po­rary hous­ing for evac­u­ated se­niors.

The Fort McMur­ray fire of 2016 CARP is a na­tional not-for-profit, non-par­ti­san as­so­ci­a­tion com­mit­ted to ad­vanc­ing the qual­ity of life for Cana­di­ans as they age. To be­come a mem­ber, call 1-833-211-2277 or go to www.CARP.ca.

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