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Preparedness key to protecting seniors during natural disasters

SEA ISLE CITY — For the residents of this small coastal community, one out of three of whom are seniors, Hurricane Sandy was an eye-opener.

The October 2012 storm forced the island to evacuate, but not everyone heeded the order, Mayor Leonard Desiderio said.

The longtime Cape May County mayor recalled getting calls from seniors who had tried to ride out the storm, only to change their minds when the waters trapped them on the island.

“We used ambulances, private vehicles and emergency vehicles,” he said, adding that rescuers needed to give the elder residents more time to move.

Disasters can impact anyone, but studies have shown the elderly are more vulnerable, both immediately and long after a disaster. Of the people killed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 60 percent were 65 or older. And a 2017 study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, using Medicare data, reported an increase in hospital admissions for the elderly following a series of tornadoes in Alabama.

In Cape May County, which has the state’s highest percentage of population above 65, at 25.6 percent, as well as the highest median age, about 49, thinking proactively about caring for its residents is part of emergency planning.

Communities with smaller year-round populations such as Sea Isle or Ventnor in Atlantic County have police and firefighters check on seniors every day. Connecting seniors with government agencies that can help them during natural disasters is critical.

“When it’s storm time, the city will let them know about pending conditions. We utilize reverse 911. We take extra, extra special precautions,” Desiderio said.

“We need to make sure that seniors understand the severity of what is coming,” Ventnor Emergency Management Coordinator Donna Peterson said.

In Atlantic County, the Register Ready program helps those who are disabled, which includes a large number of seniors. The U.S. Census reported in 2014 that 38.7 percent of seniors have a disability. Cape May, Atlantic and Ocean counties all have lower rates than the national average.

Dr. Thomas Brabson, chairman of AtlantiCare’s Emergency Services, said after a storm it’s expected hospitals will see many calls for dialysis or drugs, including methadone.

In the weeks after Sandy, seniors visited AtlantiCare sites for mold issues because of all of the flooding. Or they ran out of medication and couldn’t leave their house, Brabson said.

Anticipating that need, AtlantiCare prepares with generator backup and days’ worth of food and supplies. If flood waters ever came too close to the front door, operations would move to other places within the hospital.

It is more than just senior citizens, too.

“If we had to evacuate, we would go by car somewhere to where our cats would be comfortable and would be able to help take care of them,” said Ruth Koenig, 74, of Little Egg Harbor Township.

Brabson said AtlantiCare recognizes seniors often may travel with their pets if they need medical attention during a natural disaster. AtlantiCare works with local animal shelters to make sure that pets, in addition to their owners, are safe.

During a storm, extra employees are brought in. Medical and support staff often stay in nearby hotels and casinos or on the hospital campuses to be accessible as quickly as possible.

John Hunt, corporate director for security and emergency management at AtlantiCare, said disaster care is a team effort and involves sacrifice.

“Think of the nurses, doctors and support staff who are working during these times.” Hunt said. “They have families they are leaving behind to help out those who are in need.”

At United Methodist communities — The Shores in Ocean City, one of only three long-term care facilities located in Atlantic Ocean communities in South Jersey — the need to be prepared is a constant thought in the mind of its director.

“The first thought I have when put under an evacuation order is, ‘How are we going to get out?’ We need 96 hours to evacuate our residents from the facility,” Jessica Stewart said.

It takes days to make sure residents have a place that can attend to all of their needs as well as make them feel comfortable. That is why The Shores runs disaster drills on a consistent basis, she said.

“We will put residents into different communities, depending on their needs,” Stewart said.

That means transporting people across the state into different facilities. The Shores has sister communities that residents need to be transported to. A moving company comes to take the hospital beds to their temporary destination, too.

The facility also has a contract with an ambulance company to move people. In terms of who evacuates first:

“The most frail,” Stewart said.

Meteorologist

This is my first newspaper but not my first forecast for NJ. I graduated with a B.S. in Meteorology from Rutgers. Two TV internships gave me a taste for the newsroom. Then, after nearly 4 years in private NJ weather, I'm forecasting South Jersey for you.