From Katrina to the “Next Sandy”: Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Recovery for Older Adults

Rachael Pine

By Rachael N. Pine, J.D., Program Officer, Altman Foundation

On February 27, Philanthropy New York hosted a session to zero in on the impact of disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, on vulnerable populations. I moderated the session and opened with comments about vulnerability in disasters. Vulnerability, when ordinary systems break down, stems from many attributes: physical frailty, physical or mental illness, cognitive impairment, mobility impairment, social isolation, and other barriers to understanding, seeking or finding help, such as limited English, immigration status and even poverty. Older adults have a disproportionate share of these attributes and, thus, have been the most likely to suffer serious harm and even loss of life in disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

The session consisted of presentations by a dynamic panel of experts, including NYC Department for the Aging (DFTA) Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli; Jenny Campbell, Former Director of the Grantmakers in Aging Hurricane Fund for the Elderly following Hurricane Katrina; and Ruth Finkelstein, Senior Vice President of the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) and Director of the Age-Friendly New York City initiative.

Commissioner Barrios-Paoli provided an account of DFTA’s herculean efforts to reach older adults immediately following Hurricane Sandy and summarized current discussions in City government about how response and recovery systems should be improved. Ms. Campbell discussed the efforts of the Hurricane Fund for the Elderly to raise money for response and recovery and to identify high-impact projects meriting philanthropic support following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, sharing lessons learned related to the impact on older adults and her efforts to shape philanthropic response.

Finally, Ms. Finkelstein commented on the critical, yet inherently limited, capacity of government response, emphasizing the importance of developing cross-sectoral systems that are rooted in communities most at risk. She also informed the group about a recently launched one-year NYAM project, supported by both The New York Community Trust and the Altman Foundation, to work with community organizations in hard-hit areas to assess the gaps, needs and impact of the Hurricane as related to older adults. The aim of the project is to convene both government and non-governmental players — such as nonprofit organizations, housing owners or associations, business improvement districts, faith-based organizations, etc. — that could potentially be part of a multi-sector response plan in emergency situations and to formulate and disseminate recommendations for future action.

Attendees were very engaged, and many ideas were shared: the need to build community resiliency, the role of technology, the need for voluntary registries or registration, the importance of multi-sector systems, the need to use but also coordinate and systematize the efforts of volunteers, ways to guide and galvanize neighbor-to-neighbor assistance, and many others. In writing this blog post, I am hoping to further the dialogue. Please write in with comments and ideas. Thinking about older adults in particular … what needs were unmet? What system gaps were revealed? What wild aspirational out-of-the-box ideas do you have for a better response next time? What response systems are so painfully obvious that it is a travesty that they were not already in place in a city like New York!? Are you providing grant support for any of the above?


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