Older Victims of Hurricane Harvey May Need Special Attention as Texas Recovers

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Volunteer rescuer workers help a woman from her home that was inundated with the flooding of Hurricane Harvey on August 30, 2017, in Port Arthur, Texas. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

News and social media reports from coastal Texas have shown many striking images of Hurricane Harvey flood victims, but few were as arresting as a photo of older women in a Dickinson nursing home, sitting in waist-high water in their wheelchairs. Although the women were moved to safety, the picture highlighted how vulnerable older adults can be during and after major disasters.

My work focuses on answering pressing questions about the health of older adults after events such as Hurricane Harvey. While age alone does not make people more vulnerable to disasters, many health issues that are common with aging do, including frailness, memory impairment, limited mobility and chronic illness. Sixty percent of Hurricane Katrina deaths were age 65 and older, and more older adults died after Hurricane Katrina and in the year after than any other age group.

In a study published earlier this year, we showed that older adults are affected by disasters well after storms or other threats have passed. But disaster response planning for communities and health care systems focuses on the immediate surge after the event, which varies with every disaster but typically lasts hours to days.

As flood waters in Texas peak and recede, public officials and health care providers should begin to plan now for older adults’ long-term medical needs. Beyond getting the electricity back on and patching up broken limbs, an adequate disaster response must understand and correct the ways in which disasters disrupt survivors’ normal living patterns in the extended period after the storm.

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