Charleston Amateur Radio Society
The following article was published in the November 2005 issue of the AARP Bulletin.
South Carolina, especially the coastal area, needs to follow this example.
John, WA4GPS

Your Life Defensive Strategies
A disaster plan for those who need it most.
By Barbara Basler

Ned Wright calculates that if Linn County, Iowa, had "a real bad day"—a leak at its nuclear power plant or a storm that might trigger devastating river floods—he could bring in 650 buses and move 35,000 of the county's most vulnerable residents to safety.

The county emergency manager knows exactly where frail older residents and others with special needs are in Cedar Rapids and in the countryside surrounding it because he has mapped their locations by computer.

"A high proportion of Linn County citizens are retirees, and we've got this GIS program—geographic information system—that puts every nursing home, assisted living and congregate care facility in the county on a map," he says. People who live at home and need help register and are put on the map, too.

This plan for special-needs residents has been cited as a model by federal emergency officials and by the National Association of Counties. Linn County has planned every step—from setting up a large shelter with emergency power for those on dialysis or life support to how to ensure that city, county and school bus drivers report for duty in a crisis to transport these residents:

"We've told the drivers their families will be on the first buses to roll out of town if they're on the job," Wright says. "That way they don't have to worry about what's happening to their loved ones."

Most communities have not even considered the issue of how to evacuate people with special needs, let alone made specific plans. "It's a problem that is going to get bigger, not smaller, and it's going to get bigger particularly in those coastal areas where the risk is the greatest," says Jack Harrald, director of the George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management.

"We have to sit down and do the math—how are we going to evacuate all these people? Where do we put them?"

Watching the New Orleans evacuation story unfold, Wright, a blunt former military man who has spent the last 11 years of his life preparing Linn County for disaster, was livid.

"We would not," he says firmly, "have had a St. Rita's here."

St. Rita's, the flooded Louisiana nursing home where 34 bodies were discovered—some still slumped in their wheelchairs—has become a disturbing symbol of the way older Americans were abandoned, left on their own during the swirling chaos of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. These residents and many other older, infirm men and women living alone died because they needed help to escape the city—and they didn't get it.

Congressional hearings probing the botched evacuation of the city are already under way. But disaster managers say what happened in New Orleans could have happened in other cities and towns.

Experts say all levels of government—federal, state and local—bungled the Katrina disaster. But Dennis S. Mileti, an expert in disaster planning who co-founded the Natural Hazards Review journal, says, "If you want to know what might happen to you in a disaster, you have to look at what your local government has planned."

Linn County developed its special-needs plan on its own—Iowa has no specific laws governing that evacuation issue. Only a handful of states require that kind of planning by communities. Florida is one.

With its large older population and its vulnerability to hurricanes, Florida has developed a comprehensive program and "is one of the few states that has seriously dealt with this issue," says Jack Harrald.

Since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida has passed a number of laws spelling out what communities must do to prepare for and respond to a disaster. Its lengthy special-needs legislation includes provisions for:
  • A registry—maintained by local emergency management offices—of people with physical or mental disabilities.
  • A state registry of health care practitioners who can staff shelters.
  • A periodic survey of potential shelter sites such as schools, with reports on which facilities need retrofitting, using state funds, to be storm-ready.
  • Evacuation plans—including transportation, medication and shelter—to be coordinated for clients by home health care agencies.
While the Florida law is one of the most detailed, state lawmakers are now at work refining it after a series of hurricanes in 2004 revealed some shortcomings. For example, while federal regulations require nursing homes and hospitals to have emergency evacuation plans, a bill proposed by state Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, would establish an emergency number nursing homes could call if plans went awry.

Experts know the time to institute reforms is right after a disaster, before the public and the politicians lose interest.

"This is the window of opportunity for people and organizations to demand better disaster preparation from the bottom up," says George Haddow, a research scientist and disaster planning consultant who has co-authored a textbook on emergency management. "People have to demand it now."

Preparing means more than just writing a plan. About 15 times a year Linn County conducts disaster exercises, which, experts say, are essential to help an emergency plan work even when it encounters the unexpected.

Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, says emergency managers should emulate the legendary jazz musicians of New Orleans.

"Research on jazz," she says, "tells us that the jazz musicians who are the best at improvisation are the ones who study and practice the most."