Older people have many reasons not to evacuate before a hurricane – here’s why it’s important to watch out for aging neighbors


(The Conversation) – As the mandatory evacuations for Hurricane Ian began in Florida and warnings of damaging winds and flooding intensified, I called my aging parents to check in.

As a disaster researcher, my concern for them was already in high gear, even though they weren’t directly in an evacuation zone. My father takes medications that require refrigeration, special needles and a sterile environment to administer. My mother is in the early stages of dementia. Both are no longer as lively as before.

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I heard the worry in their voices about their safety, my father’s health needs, and what might happen to their home.

As I sat at home hundreds of miles away, I pondered all the reasons why leaving isn’t always a clear decision.

Concerns about health and home safety are two reasons older people may fear evacuating during disasters like Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Scott Olson/Getty Images

As with other recent hurricanes, some residents will choose to ride out the storm at home, despite evacuation recommendations. Risks can be high – sheltering in place during a major hurricane, with torrential rains, storm surges and powerful winds, can put lives at risk. Damage to quarters after the storm, including loss of power, can also be dangerous, and supplies can be hard to come by.

It’s easy to dismiss those left in the storm’s path as misinformed, but for the elderly, evacuation can have its own consequences. Researchers have found that older people may not be well prepared to deal with the health risks that arise during disasters. Being prepared to evacuate or stay put is one of them.

Understanding and addressing the underlying reasons why older people do not evacuate can help improve disaster response for this population.

Evacuation can be expensive

For seniors living on a fixed income, evacuation is not always feasible for their budget. Evacuation has many associated – and hidden – costs.

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Transportation, food and accommodation can add up quickly. Shelters can be intimidating.

A man stands outside the door of a mobile home as his dog runs to greet two police officers.
Pets are another reason some people don’t evacuate, even when officers urge them to leave. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

A 2020 survey we conducted of 2,256 seniors across the United States found that about 1 in 4 (24%) said it would be difficult to afford to stay elsewhere for a week if necessary. . And with so many storms occurring so frequently, the costs of multiple evacuations can quickly add up.

Concerns about chronic disease management

Up to 60% of older people in America have more than one chronic health condition. Diabetes, kidney disease, and even cancer are prime examples of conditions that require daily attention in order to maintain optimal health.

When our research team surveyed seniors who use essential medical equipment that requires electricity, only 25% had an alternative power source for that equipment.

Additionally, oxygen tanks, home dialysis machines, chemotherapy, and strict diets and medications can be part of vital daily routines. Without this equipment, health problems can arise, which can have lasting health effects.

An elderly man lies on a cot in an evacuation centre. He has a bracelet and is holding a bottle of water.
Shelters can be intimidating for older residents. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Seniors may be hesitant to break these care routines or worry about being away from important equipment that isn’t portable.

Mobility issues

Difficulty moving, loss of balance and unsteadiness are common changes that occur with aging. The risk of falling or being injured by moving more than usual due to storm preparations is a considerable challenge.

For seniors with reduced mobility, the challenges of preparing to evacuate and then leaving their homes and finding themselves in a crowded and chaotic situation can be a serious deterrent.

Social isolation

Social isolation is also a well-documented problem among older adults. Older people who live alone, care for loved ones, or don’t speak English are particularly at risk. These people may lack the awareness and resources to evacuate.

That’s why escape planning guidelines recommend checking on neighbors to see if they need help. Programs, run by governments or community groups, also exist in some areas to help older people evacuate.

Trust past experiences

Many seniors have chosen to stay home through decades of severe storms and hurricanes. Hurricane Ian may not look any different, but it is.

The Gulf Coast near Tampa has not seen direct hurricane impacts in over 100 years. The tendency to underestimate the severity of a disaster and its potential effects is called normality bias. The idea that “if it didn’t happen before, why should it happen now?” is the one who keeps a lot at home rather than evacuating.

Bare shelves that once held bottled water in a store with shoppers.
Orlando store shelves were empty of bottled water and other storm supplies days before Hurricane Ian landed. Crowds can be difficult for some older residents to handle. AP Photo/John Raoux

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody told reporters, “This could be the storm we all fear” in the Tampa Bay area. She is right to be afraid.

Hurricane Ian is expected to cause massive damage as it approaches the Florida coast, and it will almost certainly have long-term effects for many of its elderly residents. Building communities of support that can help older people prepare – and become resilient – ​​to disasters is needed now more than ever.


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