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Washington, D.C. - U.S. Senator Susan Collins, Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, led a hearing yesterday, “Disaster Preparedness and Response: The Special Needs of Older Americans,” to examine policies and procedures for sheltering in place, evacuating, and relocating our most vulnerable citizens before disaster strikes.
The hearing featured testimony from two health care experts and two emergency response strategists on lessons learned from past experiences and what more can be done to ensure the health, safety, and resilience of older Americans during and after disasters, such as hurricanes.
“As these recent disasters make clear, older Americans are particularly vulnerable before, during, and even after a storm,” said Senator Collins said in her opening remarks. “While we have made strides since Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago, we must ask ourselves: can we better protect the most vulnerable members of our communities? What gaps exist that could jeopardize lives in the next catastrophe, whether it’s a storm, earthquake or some other unanticipated event? We should not have to wait for the next Irene, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, or unnamed catastrophe to strike.”
Senator Collins is the former Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Following Hurricane Katrina, along with then-Senator Joe Lieberman (I/D-CT), she chaired a series of hearings and issued a report on the weaknesses in our nation’s emergency response, including the failure on the part of all levels of government to plan and provide for the timely and effective evacuation of our most vulnerable seniors. One of yesterday's witnesses, Dr. Karen DeSalvo, former Health Commissioner in New Orleans, credited Senator Collins for her work post-Hurricane Katrina that led to the development of a National Disaster Recovery Framework to clearly define coordination structures and roles and responsibilities, and to much improved communication between local, state, and federal emergency personnel.
During the hearing, Dr. Kathryn Hyer, professor and director of the Florida Policy Exchange Center on Aging at the University of South Florida, showed that in some cases, it is potentially more dangerous to evacuate nursing home residents from a hurricane than to shelter in place. While each case is different and depends on the situation, she suggested broad steps that could make nursing homes and assisted living facilities safer, especially if disaster strikes. Dr. Hyer called for making emergency plans more accessible to family members, increasing oversight of assisted living facilities, and prioritizing nursing homes for restoration after the storm.
Senators Collins, Bill Nelson (D-FL), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced legislation, the Protecting Seniors During Disasters Act, that would create a national advisory committee dedicated to improving preparations and care for our nation’s seniors during a disaster.
Witnesses at yesterday's hearing included:
• Karen DeSalvo, M.D., M.P.H., Former Health Commissioner, City of New Orleans, LA
• Kathryn Hyer, Ph.D., M.P.P., Professor, University of South Florida’s School of Aging Studies, Director, Florida Policy Exchange Center on Aging, Tampa, FL
• Paul Timmons Jr., CEO, President, Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, Charleston, SC
• Jay Delaney, Fire Chief, Emergency Management Coordinator, Bureau of Fire, Wilkes-Barre, PA