Hurricane Harvey, Irma and Maria were among the most devastating storms the United States and nearby countries have ever seen. Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 storm, affected over 13 million people in five different states. Hurricane Irma, which spent three days as a category 5 storm, resulted in what was potentially one of the largest ordered evacuations in US history. 1.3 million people in Florida lost power within the first four hours after Irma made landfall and Hurricane Maria has left Puerto Rico devastated, with more than half the country still without drinking water. In fact, a senator from Puerto Rico is calling on Puerto Rican nationals living in the United States to bring their elderly relatives to the American mainland—at least temporarily in order to save them due to the lack of resources and care available. Storms like these disproportionately affect the elderly, who are especially vulnerable. The impact of these super storms (which hit strongest in Florida, the state with the highest proportion of people 65 and older) have highlighted the need for a serious discussion about protecting seniors during a crisis and ensuring that there is proper planning and infrastructure in place to keep seniors safe during emergencies.

The Challenge

The challenges people face during a natural disaster are often multiplied for seniors and their care takers. Decisions about whether to evacuate are complex as many seniors are mentally or physically not in a condition to move from location to location. Many shelters are also not equipped to handle special needs so in some cases it is the classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario” as many consider their options. Many elderly will unfortunately pass away after a crisis such as this, whether they are evacuated or not, simply due to the trauma of the event – so medical staff must evaluate what is best for their patients at the time. In addition, seniors may require special transport to actually evacuate. For those that remain at home, they may not be used to using the forms of communication that people use during emergencies to communicate—including mobile phones to drop GPS coordinates or social media to ask for help. They may run out of critical medications. And, if they lose electricity – that could affect life sustaining equipment or deprive them of much needed air conditioning.

The Solution

So, how can these challenges be addressed? A recent Forbes article outlined a series of steps that need to be taken. These including mapping at-risk seniors and creating a plan to get to them, creating easy-to-use technology so seniors can request assistance, and developing an emergency transportation system to get seniors to shelters. Many senior care providers—home health care, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes—addressed the challenges mentioned above rigorously. In Houston, one home health care organization found alternatives way to ensure that communication—and therefore operations—were ongoing, contacting staff via email, phone call, even holding staff meetings in a parking lot.

Another organization triaged patients into different levels before the storm hit. High-acuity patients were assigned a caregiver during the storm while level three and four patients received care one to four days after the storm hit. In Florida, several nursing homes had to evacuate residents, working to keep them comfortable and calm even as plans changed quickly—because initial safety destinations came under evacuation order, as well. These approaches to the challenges seniors face during a storm highlight just how important communication is to ensuring that emergency preparedness plans are successful.

Communication is key at all points—before, during, and after the storm. And because of the nature of the industry and the event, the medium of communication is important. Secure encrypted messaging runs on multiple channels—wifi and cell service—and secures conversations, ensuring that discussions over sensitive topics such as triaging patients are protected. Read receipts lets the sender know that the recipient has received the message—something voicemail does not do. And having these conversations through a single, designated channel lets staff know that each time they receive a message through that medium, it’s important.

Broadcast notifications prior, during and post event help maintain communication and keep your staff connected and patient status known. When it comes to planning and implementation, communication is key and it’s important to choose a method that ensures communication is ongoing.

To find out how Vaporstream can help with emergency preparedness plans, contact us or see the platform in action.

Contributor- Kristi Perdue Hinkle