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Older Adults Need a Disaster Plan, FEMA Says

Peak hurricane season extends from mid-August to mid-October. It’s not the only foul weather to worry about

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You may think you have everything you need for severe weather, but experts warn that most older adults aren’t as prepared as they should be.

About two-thirds or more of adults 50 and older have a phone charger for their car that they can use if the electricity goes out, put emergency contacts in their phone, stockpiled at least three weeks’ worth of their prescriptions, and downloaded their bank’s smartphone app, according to a July 2023 survey from AARP and the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. But from there, preparation for a potential disaster goes downhill.

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“Technology has made it easier for people to prepare and take action during emergencies, but its reliability depends on the steps a person takes before a disaster strikes,” said Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP. The AARP-affiliated charity specializes in teaching technology skills to older adults.

Most older adults lack an emergency plan

Less than a third of the 1,012 older adults surveyed said they had created an emergency plan, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) considers vital. Nor have they invested in a generator — a portable gas- or solar-powered device or a more expensive whole-house generator — to provide backup power in case of days without power.​

As adults age, they become increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

The 50-plus population is up by about 15 percent in a decade, to 120 million as of 2021, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, accounting for more than a third of all Americans.​

“Being prepared for a disaster is important at every age,” says Jeff Jackson, acting assistant administrator for national preparedness at FEMA. “This is especially true for older adults who may rely on the availability of health care services, accessible transportation, special diets, medications, mobility devices, access to power, communications and other vital resources.”​

Any month can have a natural disaster​

Peak hurricane season is mid-August through mid-October, but just about any time of year has its own dangers.​

Peak tornado season starts in the spring on the Gulf Coast and moves its way up to the northern Plains by July.  Peak wildfire season in the West is during the summer, but the U.S. Forest Service now considers it a year-round problem.​

Flooding can occur at any time when rains are heavy or snow and ice are melting; mudslides can be part of the danger, too. Extreme cold with or without blizzard conditions can create frostbite risks and paralyze power grids.​

“It is critical that older adults discuss their needs with their trusted support network before a disaster occurs,” Jackson says, especially since disasters are often followed by a loss of power that can last from hours to weeks, with cellphone service disrupted and roads impassable.​

Take these 7 steps now to be ready later​

The perfect time to think about emergency preparedness is when the weather is wonderful.​

1. Get to know your neighbors and check on them regularly. Making those connections now can help you and first responders later when they’re checking on everyone’s safety in the aftermath of widespread damage.

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2. Expect little or no access to a grocery store, hospital or pharmacy during an emergency, so have a minimum of three days’ supply of food, prescriptions and water. If you use medical equipment that requires electricity, talk to your doctor about how to use it during a power outage.​

3. Keep fresh batteries in your flashlights, extra for the devices you expect to use the most, and enough supplies for your first-aid kit. Provisions stored a while ago may have degraded through the years.​

A paper checklist can help

AARP’s Create the Good initiative, which connects potential volunteers with opportunities, has printable guides in English and Spanish to walk you through all the steps necessary to prepare for an emergency.

4. Buy a radio that uses alternative power. These days, the choices go beyond alkaline batteries to hand-cranked devices and some that can be ​recharged in sunlight. Test the signal quality of the news station you’ll listen to most before you need it, and if you store the radio long term, keep the batteries nearby but separate from the radio to prevent corrosion. ​

You might also be able to use your car radio during an emergency — but don’t count on it. Your vehicle may be damaged, or you may need to conserve gasoline and battery power after a storm.​

5. Make sure your phone’s emergency alerts are on. These text messages sent from national, state and local authorities are on by default on both Android and iPhone smartphones. ​

Your test alerts may not be enabled, but it’s a good idea to tap the toggle under your settings — Settings | Notifications | Advanced settings | Wireless emergency alerts | Test alerts on many Androids including the Samsung Galaxy S23 and Settings | Notifications | Government Alerts, Test Alerts for iPhones — to allow for them,  especially with a nationwide emergency alert test scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET Oct. 4. ​

6. Follow FEMA, the American Red Cross and first responders on your social media accounts so you’ll be tuned in to more real-time information after a disaster.

7. Use the cloud, securely, for important records. The destruction of official documents during disasters can delay insurance payouts and other relief to help you recover more easily. So while you’re making paper copies for your emergency financial first aid kit, place encrypted digital copies in online storage, too.​

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Do you have an evacuation plan?​

Create a plan to leave quickly before you need it, FEMA says.​

1. Look at evacuation routes as you think about the types of natural disasters your neighborhood could face. Use a paper map as a backup.​

2. Keep a full tank of gas if an evacuation order seems likely. The nearest gas station may be closed during an emergency.​

3. Arrange an escape plan with friends if you don’t own a car.​

4. Determine a place to meet if all your family isn’t at home when you have to move out.​

5. Learn how to turn off electricity, natural gas and water in case an official in the area instructs you to do so to prevent fires in the aftermath of extreme weather.​

6. Keep a go bag packed so you can get out quickly. ​

7. Prepare a go bag for your pets, too. Make sure their ID tags are up to date and they have a microchip with current information on file. Consider a GPS tracking collar. Ones that can pinpoint a location require a monthly subscription for the satellite service. Don’t leave your animals behind.​

Jackson suggests that those who live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities speak with administrators about disaster plans, especially evacuation plans. Family members also should ask about the establishment’s emergency preparedness.​

“Whenever possible, older adults should create a support network of family, friends, neighbors, community- or faith-based organizations, human service providers and others who may be able to assist before and after an emergency or disaster,” he says. “It is critical that older adults discuss their needs with their trusted support network before a disaster occurs.”​

Video: 3 Things You Need to Do Before Disaster Strikes

This article, originally published Aug. 30, 2019, has been updated with findings from a 2023 AARP Research report and other new information.

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