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BY ROGER MILLER | On the day Hurricane Sandy bowled through New York City almost two years ago, Wilma Serrano was in her apartment on the Lower East Side watching TV.
“All of a sudden the lights went out, and when I looked out the window the East River was overflowing towards my building and the cars began to float away,” she said.
There was also another complication: Serrano, now 64, has diabetes and uses a wheelchair. This meant that in the aftermath of the storm, she had to rely on her daughter to get food, medication, and fresh water.
Serrano’s story is far from uncommon. In New York City there are 1.4 million people — 17 percent of the total population — with 60 years or more under their belt. And when the surge of water came charging over the banks, roughly 30 percent of the households within the water’s reach — about 67,000 — had at least one adult aged 65 and older. And of the 44 people that died as a result of Hurricane Sandy, 31 were people aged 55 and over. That’s 70 percent.
These are the sobering numbers cited in a new report published by the New York Academy of Medicine. It’s called “Resilient Communities: Empowering Older Adults in Disasters and Daily Life,” and its aim is simple: learn from the past and prepare for the future, specifically with New York’s older residents in mind.
“One of our first findings was that older adults with more connections within community networks were more likely to have their needs met, while the reverse was also true,” said Dr. Jo Ivey Boufford, one of the report’s lead contributors. “ It was difficult for non-connected adults to get help, especially for older people on the Lower East Side and in Chinatown.”
This was the case with Serrano, whose family was able to help her get what she needed in the wake of the storm. After securing food and water for her mother, Serrano’s daughter was also able to go around knocking on doors to see if anyone else needed help. Several floors up, there was another elderly woman in a wheelchair unable to get food and water. Serrano’s daughter aided her as best as she could and ended up connecting her with a local aid organization.
This kind of volunteering is what the report refers to as “community infrastructure.” In the aftermath of the storm, thousands of volunteers sprung out of the woodwork to go around knocking on doors like Serrano’s daughter did. Some businesses offered supplies, while non-governmental organizations like the Visiting Nurse Service of New York adapted to work with volunteers, governmental agencies, and organizations like the American Red Cross.
“What we did was a quick triaging for people who said they needed help and medication,” said Jill Goldstein, the Nurse Service’s vice president in charge of emergency response. “We saw what their basic needs were – food, water, and medication – and we would have physicians writing prescriptions that the pharmacies in Manhattan could deliver to the patients.”
Essentially, Goldstein said, Sandy taught her and her organization how to respond to a disaster by utilizing every single staff member to meet the needs of their patients and anyone else in trouble. Even the office personnel who normally never go out into the field were enlisted to knock on doors.
Karen Spence Atkinson, a registered nurse, was one of these staff members. Although her training enabled her to care for many of the elderly people trapped after the storm, she also became a sort of conduit of information for people who couldn’t reach their loved ones.
When one of her patients, or someone in need couldn’t reach their parents or children, Atkinson would let them use her cell phone to call them and put their minds at ease.
“I became a community member even though I wasn’t part of the community,” she said.
As effective as the community infrastructure was in responding to the disaster, however, the report’s authors also stated that there was a high degree of miscommunication between many of the governmental agencies and the non-profit organizations, so that some response efforts were either late or redundant with multiple groups responding to the same call for help.
In order to prepare for another disaster like Hurricane Sandy, the report recommends that communities should essentially work to build connections between neighbors, businesses, and organizations working in the neighborhood. They also said that neighborhoods should offer something called a “community resilience hub,” said Boufford. “One stop shops for those looking into how to be prepared for emergencies.”
The report’s authors also recommend that various governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations share their emergency plans in order to coordinate their efforts. And both these groups, the report states, should engage older adults in their plans so that they know their needs are being met, and also how they might help in the event of an emergency.
For her part, Serrano now keeps a “Go-Bag” ready for emergencies.
One of the most specific recommendations the report detailed was for the passage of an emergency pharmacy bill, which would require city and county departments to consult with healthcare and hospice workers on their emergency plans so that older adults are able to get their medications, even in emergencies.
To isolate these key findings and make recommendations, doctors and nurses who work with the New York Academy of Medicine, along with social workers, healthcare providers, non-profit volunteers, business leaders, and officials from government agencies like the New York City Housing Authority, collaborated to sort through the mess of information left behind by the storm. According to the report, they interviewed 200 people, including experts in disaster response, older adults who experienced the storm firsthand, and first responders.
Another key aspect of the report was the multilingual and diverse approach it took. Interviews were conducted in Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, Spanish and English.