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Senior Citizens Face Big Challenges In Preparing For Hurricanes


Big storms like Harvey and Hurricane Irma are terrifying to anyone in their path. They can be especially frightening for seniors, the elderly. We're going to hear now about how older Americans and their families can prepare. Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Everyone looking down the barrel of a hurricane or tropical storm should have a plan, but FEMA's Mary Hudak says seniors should think extra hard about what's about to happen.

MARY HUDAK: What medications do they need? Are there special foods that they require?

MANN: Hudak says anyone with special medical needs or mobility challenges should also give themselves extra time in case they do have to evacuate, and they should be ready to travel with a written list of emergency phone numbers and a list of their medications. And they should make plans in advance for their pets. One other thing - family members should talk to seniors long before the storm hits.

HUDAK: Talk with them about making sure that they, number one, know their risk. Are they at risk from flooding? Are they at risk from strong winds? Then have a plan on where to go - and then to have a family communication plan so that your family knows where you are going.

MANN: In the aftermath of Harvey, it was clear that a lot of older people weren't ready.

CHARLES BURR: This is where I am now, OK.

MANN: Charles Burr said he felt completely unprepared. He's a retired schoolteacher with gray hair and a gray, stubble beard. He sat on a cot in a middle school gymnasium in Port Arthur, Texas, looking weary.

BURR: I have medical problems - one lung, and my feet are giving out. And I have to wear an oxygen concentrator. And it's debilitating, but I can get around.

MANN: Floodwater pushed him out of his home so fast he lost everything, including his car. He's bumped from shelter to shelter. It's a story that plays out over and over for many elderly people. Their homes are their refuge. They don't want to leave until it's too late. First responders and volunteers say helping seniors in times of crisis can be complicated and wrenching.

MICHAEL NICHOLS: I had a phone call from an elderly lady asking me what to do.

MANN: Pastor Michael Nichols helped with evacuations during the worst of Harvey.

NICHOLS: You know, that was toughest phone call I ever took when I said I couldn't get to her.

MANN: She was later rescued, he says, and is now in the hospital. FEMA and AARP have both created online checklists and instructions to help seniors and family members think through this stuff. Emergency responders say they also think in advance about how to care for older people with special needs who are displaced. Jay Bonafede is a spokesman for the Red Cross.

JAY BONAFEDE: A lot of them are on medications. We do have health services people here that can help try to work to replace those because a lot of times when they're forced to evacuate so quickly in a situation like this, they unfortunately have to leave those behind.

MANN: At shelters in Texas, volunteers can be seen helping older people eat and move around, some of the seniors in wheelchairs or using walkers. Bonafede says Red Cross workers are trained to watch for seniors who have special needs.

BONAFEDE: Getting to the showers, getting to the bathrooms, even - you know, things like that.

MANN: Two other bits of advice for seniors before they land in a shelter - if you need eyeglasses, have an extra pair with you. Also, you should try to bring one small item when you evacuate that's a comfort - maybe a pillow or a sweater, something that offers a sense of normalcy and home while you're displaced. Brian Mann, NPR News.


Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.