Kohl Calls on Administration to Strengthen Emergency Plans for Seniors
With the start of hurricane season weeks away, U.S. Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), Ranking Member of the Special Committee on Aging, today held a hearing to review what steps must still be taken to ensure the safety of seniors in future national emergencies, including natural disasters, potential terrorist attacks or avian flu pandemic. According to a recent report authored by AARP, many of the 1,330 people killed by Katrina were elderly. The report estimates that 71 percent of the victims in Louisiana were older than 60 and while many died in their homes, at least 68 were found in nursing homes, abandoned by their caretakers.
"We know now that cookie cutter emergency plans are of little use to seniors, especially those who depend on others for assistance in their daily lives," Kohl said. "We must put in place a concrete strategy that recognizes and masters the challenges of keeping seniors out of harm's way."
Jean Cefalu, a registered nurse who volunteered her services after Hurricane Katrina, testified about numerous failings she witnessed as part of the evacuation of nursing homes in the New Orleans Metro area.
She added: "It is a known fact that 75% of those who died during and after Katrina were 75 years of age or older. To some extent, the exaggerated number of deaths relative to the elderly represents the underserved population [in New Orleans]. However, this is not to say that a similar catastrophe and exaggerated impact on vulnerable elderly populations could not occur in other parts of the US."
At the hearing, Cefalu was joined by Maurice Frisella, an 82 year old New Orleans resident and Hurricane Katrina survivor, Dr. Carmel Dyer, a renowned geriatrician at Baylor's College of Medicine, and representatives from the Government Accountability Office and Miami-Dade County Emergency Management. The panelists all shared their recommendations to improve government emergency response for seniors.
Dan Sutherland, an Officer in the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Civil Rights and Civil Liberties division, discussed the Department's ongoing efforts to prepare for the unique needs of seniors in emergencies.
"We must do a better job in telling older people what supplies and plans they need to have in place if a terrorist attack or flu pandemic hits," Kohl said. "As a start, my office has developed a 'tip sheet' and I hope DHS will follow with pamphlets, public announcements, and specific direction for seniors and the agencies that serve them."
Kohl also pressed DHS to direct state and local governments to plan for and practice evacuation and shelter-in-place exercises specifically for seniors. He suggested that DHS require hospitals and nursing homes to plan ahead for evacuations, and fund training for first responders to help seniors who live at home and may be unable to evacuate.
The hearing is the second held by the Committee in the aftermath of the terrible circumstances many seniors found themselves in during and after the Gulf Coast hurricanes. Kohl plans to release a report later in the year outlining recommendations from the hearing's witnesses and other interested groups.