Protecting Our Elders From Hurricane Ian and Beyond

Protecting Our Elders From Hurricane Ian and Beyond

 

WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES

Photograph by Pat Martin

The Frontline examines the risks older people face from climate change—and the need to protect older people who represent a “walking piece of history,” as one activist said.

There are no words to describe the fallout of Hurricane Ian. Hurricane season always arrives in the Atlantic with an unforgivable force. At the moment, about half a million remain in the dark—across Florida, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Hurricane Ian came only two weeks after Hurricane Fiona, after all. Both have already left their mark in the region, which isn’t yet bidding farewell to this year’s hurricane season. 

 

In Florida, however, a specific group of vulnerable people came to mind as Ian barreled toward the state: our elders. Older people have been driving the state’s population growth over the years, and Florida’s population sees one of the highest percentages of people who are 65 or older. What happens to this unique sector of society when hurricanes arrive? The climate movement has finally begun addressing the disproportionate impact extreme weather events have on low-income people, Black people, Indigenous people, people of color at large, undocumented people, non-English speaking people, and queer people (to a disappointing extent)—but what about older people?

 

Welcome to The Frontline, where environmental and climate justice includes our elders, too. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. One of the greatest gifts in life is to grow old—to live through and carry history, to meet the generations to come, to retire and rest. If we all strive to live long lives, why don’t we take better care of those who have? Why do we put them up in nursing homes? Why do we obsess over the wrinkles on our faces, rather than celebrate the beauty that they symbolize? We may not want to confront our own mortality, but that’s no excuse to abandon older people—especially during times of disaster when they need their community the most.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whenever a hurricane becomes deadly, there are the direct deaths and the indirect deaths that follow. Though many survive the winds and floods that torment their communities upon the storm’s arrival, they may struggle to survive in the coming days and weeks if they lose power or access to medicine, clean water, and food. For older people, access to electricity is a lifeline. Blackouts mean no air conditioning, no refrigeration for medicine, and no oxygen machines.

 

Already, Hurricane Ian has killed over 100 people. We still don’t know how many of these deaths are of older people, but past disasters have shown that our elders tend to suffer the most. And it’s not a mere coincidence, either. Many of the same factors that make other populations vulnerable—income levels, housing, communication barriers, cultural ignorance—are at play here, too. States should be doing more to protect vulnerable populations as the climate crisis revs up in intensity.

 

“We’re talking about groups that are already marginalized, that are already experiencing certain hardships,” said Emina Ćerimović, a senior disability rights researcher at the international organization Human Rights Watch. “That’s really what our work is about. It’s not just about reporting that they are at adverse risk but also that states and governments have an obligation and responsibility to ensure the safety and protection of older people and people with disabilities.”

“This was their house. This was their life, and they weren’t going to leave despite the fact that they had no real shelter.”

Geri Freedman
Former Elders Climate Action Co-Chair

Before working on climate change, Ćerimović used to investigate humanitarian emergencies caused by armed conflict. She found that the two issues were quite similar as older people struggle to flee during attacks or are left behind. The same happens globally with climate disasters. Human Rights Watch and the United Nations now recognize the disproportionate risk older people face during such extreme weather events. The facts make it impossible to ignore and, in fact, implore leaders to take action.

 

Hurricane Katrina killed an estimated 1,800 people in 2005—over 70% of them were 60 or older. Over half of the people who died from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 were 65 or older. After Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico in 2016, older people faced a 35% higher risk for mortality than researchers expected given the general population’s risk. That risk remained even six months after the hurricane hit. And when Hurricane Irma knocked the power out in Florida a year later, 14 nursing home patients died due to heat exposure.

 

Why does this happen? For one, older people face disproportionate levels of poverty. In the U.S., roughly one in every three adults 65 or older faces income insecurity. It’s worse for Black and Latine elders: over half are in poverty. Many are living on fixed incomes, too, which don’t fluctuate with rising living costs. That puts them in a precarious position before a hurricane comes. If they’re poor, they may not own a car to ease evacuation. They’re unlikely to own a generator, which can temporarily provide power when the energy grid is down. They may already struggle to access healthy foods—a hurricane makes this all a million times worse.

 

Their health and housing statuses add even more layers of vulnerability. Depending on where they live (or with whom), evacuation can be complicated, especially if they’re in a wheelchair or face health issues that affect their mobility, vision, or hearing. They might decide to ride out the storm at home if their local shelter won’t allow their pet, which may be their main companion. 

 

Older adults may also be unwilling to leave behind their home and their possessions (especially if they’re poor). Geri Freedman, who used to co-chair the elder-led climate group Elders Climate Action, spent 38 years in Florida before moving to Michigan. During that time, she did a lot of volunteer emergency response work for her community—for Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005, for instance. She saw elders who had spent their entire lives in Florida and, therefore, felt prepared for whatever hurricane was coming. The hurricanes supercharged by climate change today, however, are not the same ones they used to know. 

 

Freedman is 71 now, yet she still thinks back to one memory, in particular. An older couple who had survived Hurricane Andrew refused to leave their home—despite its roof being essentially non-existent. They sat there in their chairs, and they would not budge, she recalled.

 

“This was their house,” she said. “This was their life, and they weren’t going to leave despite the fact that they had no real shelter.”

“All of these are creating really devastating impacts for our loved ones, and we refuse to leave them behind.”

Mei Azaad
Fight Toxic Prisons

The situation can often be worse in a nursing home or assisted living facility where older people may not be able to advocate for themselves or make their own decisions. They may also face limited access to life-saving resources—be it air conditioning or medicine. They may not even know what’s happening if a nursing home or facility doesn’t give them information. That doesn’t mean that providing safety and care is any easier for those who take care of their older loved ones themselves. 

 

Crystal Johnson, a community advocate in Florida’s hard-hit Fort Myers area who is the founder of the local nonprofit Community Forum Foundation, is experiencing this now in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. Her mother, who is newly diagnosed with dementia, lost power at her house. As a result, Johnson has to keep her mother at her aunt’s house, but the change in routine (a necessary component for dementia patients) is creating confusion and stress for her mom.

 

“She recognizes that there was a storm, but then she doesn’t know why we aren’t doing things that are traditional, that she’s used to doing,” Johnson said. “We need her grounded because, if not, she can get very upset and anxious.”

 

In wake of Hurricane Ian, Johnson has hit several obstacles in her attempt to take care of herself, her family, and her community: gas stations that require credit cards (a barrier for those with low credit scores) and loss of power. She wonders why the local community center, which has solar panels, can’t use the clean energy it’s generating to turn the lights on and operate. That way, it can serve the communities of Fort Myers. 

 

Instead, the predominantly Black and Brown communities of Dunbar of Tice that Johnson serves have had to help themselves. Neighbors remember to check on the older lady down the street. They knock on one another’s doors to offer what they can. No person has been left behind, Johnson shared. Even grandmothers stepped out to clean debris once the storm cleared—because that’s what community does. Now, many community members are worried that this may make them ineligible for federal assistance as the Federal Emergency Management Agency requires documentation before, during, and after clean-up—which many people didn’t know before they started cleaning up.

 

This commitment to assisting can backfire in other ways, too, said Rev. Dr. Jose Rodriguez, a priest at the Episcopal Church of Jesus of Nazaret who primarily works with Latine communities in eastern Orlando. He’s witnessing a similar outpour of support from elders who refuse to accept help for them—even if they need it. On Monday, a great-grandmother came to the church to ask for food, but it wasn’t for her. It was for her grandchildren.

“Why wouldn’t you want to have this walking piece of history among us? We should definitely honor them a lot more. They know so much.”

Yaritza Perez
Moms Clean Air Force

“We have a generation of folks who are self-giving and self-sacrificing who are going to be digging into their limited SNAP benefits or their limited social security checks to help their children, and they’re going to forgo getting assistance themselves in order to help their children,” Rodriguez said. “That’s really of concern to me because I can help both their children and them, but a lot of these folks live with a mindset of scarcity—it’s one or the other—when that’s not reality in this country.”

 

Rodriguez is especially concerned about the long-term mental health impacts and trauma his community will experience from climate change. Some of his congregation members came to Florida after fleeing Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria. Now, they’re having to face such threats again in their new home. 

 

Yaritza Perez, a field organizer and state coordinator in Florida for the mother-led climate group Moms Clean Air Force, was safe during Hurricane Ian, but she worried for her mom. She laments at the lack of respect and reverence for older people. “Why wouldn’t you want to have this walking piece of history among us? We should definitely honor them a lot more,” she said. “They know so much.” And yet there are few resources available to protect them. Luckily, Perez and her family are there to help take care of and advocate for her mother, who has had to move from an assisted living facility in years past due to concern about nearby toxic pollution. Perez can’t count on anyone else to. 

 

While health and economic disparities do exacerbate the risk older people face, their vulnerability runs much deeper than that. It ultimately connects back to the way we, as a society, treat and view our elders. 

 

“We undervalue older adults,” said Deborah Carr, a sociology professor at Boston University who serves as the director of its Center for Innovation and Social Science. “Whether it’s the storm or whether it’s COVID, there’s still this conversation that goes something like this: They were old. They were going to die anyhow.

 

This attitude is what fuels their abandonment—and their exploitation. In the months that follow disasters, older people can also become targets for financial fraud, for instance. This treatment is unacceptable. It’s also erroneous considering that more people are living into their 80s, 90s, and over 100. “Many of these older adults actually have many years of life ahead if they’re given the opportunity and the support to help them to age well,” Carr said. 

 

That’s the thing, though: they need to be given the opportunity. And they need to be given support and resources before disaster strikes. If they’re already struggling, the climate crisis—be it a hurricane or a heat wave—will only make things worse. 

 

And it’s not only older folks who live alone, in nursing homes, or with their children. Climate change poses a unique threat to those who are incarcerated, too, said Mei Azaad, a spokesperson for the disaster response team at Fight Toxic Prisons, an abolitionist advocacy organization. In Florida, the population of older people has been increasing: in 2021, they made up about 28% of the state’s incarcerated population. They face the same threats behind bars that they do on the outside; they just have less access to ways to address them.

 

“We know that elders are more at risk for COVID and other diseases, so this brings up a lot of public health concerns—both from the overcrowding and the lack of clean drinking water and food, loss of power that people may need for medical devices,” Azaad said. “This has particularly acute impacts on the elderly incarcerated population in Florida, and we don’t want them to be left behind after Hurricane Ian.”

 

What Fight Toxic Prisons wants is the mass release of older and disabled people “who shouldn’t be incarcerated in the first place,” as Azaad put it.

“We undervalue older adults. Whether it’s the storm or whether it’s COVID, there’s still this conversation that goes something like this: They were old. They were going to die anyhow.

Deborah Carr
Boston University

“We know due to climate chaos that these catastrophic storms are going to continue to escalate and intensify, as well as extreme heat, and those are compounded with COVID and other diseases,” she went on. “All of these are creating really devastating impacts for our loved ones, and we refuse to leave them behind.” 

 

The protection of our elders is growing urgent. The U.S. faces two simultaneous trends: the increase of climate change-fueled events and the growth of a rapidly aging population. Put together, these two forces can lead to a devastating loss of life—lives that could’ve been saved. Many government officials have already made clear that they believe older people are disposable, so it’s up to us to remind them of the truth. 

 

These are our parents, our grandparents, our poll workers, our community caretakers. These are our elders. They are indispensable. They cannot be replaced. What we do for those who came before us will set the tone for what we’ll receive when we’re nearing the end. We all deserve the last chapter of our lives to be full of love and support—not isolation and abandonment.

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