Some of the most dramatic footage of the fury Hurricane Florence unleashed in North Carolina is a video of an elderly woman being airlifted from her flooded home. A Coast Guard rescue swimmer from New Jersey, lowered from a helicopter into the turbulent waters surrounding the house, soon encounters the woman on the front porch. She looks pale and weak.
It turns out the woman had run out of food and medication. “She hasn’t held any food down for at least three days, or water,” Petty Officer 1st Class Steve Maccaferi relays to his crew members, who had flown from Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City.
The video then shows the helicopter lowering a rescue cage and Maccaferi securing the woman inside. She looks scared. But within minutes, she’s receiving the medical attention she needs.
The harrowing incident is a reminder that the elderly are particularly vulnerable to severe weather and natural disasters -- and thus require extra support from family, friends and neighbors. Researchers at Brown University’s School of Public Health in Providence, R.I., are using a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the impact of hurricanes on the elderly.
“If there is one thing we have found repeatedly in our research, it is the simple fact that older adults and hurricanes do not mix,” said researchers David Dosa and Kaly Thomas. “Natural disasters such as Hurricane Florence have a profound destabilizing effect on older adults, who have multiple medical problems including functional and cognitive limitations. They often also have medication and nutritional needs that suffer in the days following a storm.”
I experienced this firsthand during Superstorm Sandy, which devastated much of the Jersey Shore six years ago. Although I lived only a few miles from my mother’s condominium in Highlands, I was unable to reach her or even talk to her for nearly a week. Then in her late 70s, my mother was beginning to show signs of memory loss and other cognitive impairment.
Fortunately, she lived in a building where the residents all chipped in to cook meals on outdoor grills, share flashlight batteries and look after one another. When I finally reached her by cell phone, I learned that she had fared as well as could be expected.
Sandy left an indelible mark on the Jersey Shore, and serves as a constant reminder that families need to take special precautions to ensure the safety of older loved-ones during hurricanes, blizzards and other severe weather events. The Brown University researchers emphasize the importance of having a plan in place before a storm knocks out power and telephone service.
“If you are a family member living outside of the area, make sure you inquire as to what your loved-one’s plans will be in case cellular phone communication is not possible in the days after the storm,” they say in a Q&A posted on the university’s website.
The N.J. Office of Emergency Management offers a “Hurricane Survival Guide” that is loaded with useful information – including tips for people with functional limitations. First and foremost, families need to agree on a communications plan ahead of time. A crucial element of the plan should be to designate a family member or friend who lives outside of the area to serve as a central point of contact. He or she may be able to relay messages and offer reassurances to loved-ones in the storm zone.
The “Hurricane Survival Guide” emphasizes the importance of writing the plan down and making copies for the entire family. It also provides a check-list of essential supplies you may need – whether you’re stuck at home or are forced to evacuate. Hurricane kits for the elderly may require additional supplies, such as medications, reading glasses and blood-pressure monitors.
“If you or someone close to you has a disability or other access or functional need, you may have to take additional steps to protect yourself and your family,” the Office of Emergency Management advises.
Among other things, the OEM recommends registering with local emergency services such as police, first aid squads and fire departments. Churches and nonprofit groups also can provide assistance during emergencies.
So far, the 2018 hurricane season has been quiet at the Jersey Shore. But don’t wait until it’s too late to help an elderly family member survive a storm.
Written by T.J. Foderaro