WASHINGTON – Hurricane Katrina (search) showed the need for government and private health care providers to keep track of elderly and disabled residents and have detailed evacuation plans for them in place, advocates told senators on Wednesday.
"Of all the tragedies in this Katrina episode, I think the most disgraceful was the abandonment of those elderly people to die," said Sen. Gordon Smith (search), R-Ore., chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. "I don't know how that happens in the 21st century, but it did."
"Older adults face more challenges, have greater needs, and require specialized attention in order to survive," said Leigh Wade (search), Executive Director of the Area Agency on Aging of Southwest Florida, Inc.
"Their needs are too complex, serious and individualized to be treated with the 'one size fits all' approach that shelters and relief organizations are able to offer," Wade said.
That became clear in the aftermath of Katrina. More than 100 elderly patients in New Orleans nursing homes and hospitals died in the storm and the days that followed. Many more living independently may have died.
The committee turned to experts on health and aging who have used their experiences with hurricanes and terrorist attacks to fine-tune and test evacuation plans.
Their advice: Keep track — and share with other government and private groups — a list elderly and disabled who would need special care and what supplies they would need in an evacuation. To do that, the experts said, government and private agencies need to be in constant communication.
In New York City since the Sept. 11 attacks, that has meant weekly meetings of groups that form a "three-way partnership" among health care providers, health agencies and emergency management groups, said Susan Waltman, general counsel of the Greater New York Hospital Association.
In Florida, which saw four hurricanes in a little more than a month last year, every local emergency management agency in the state has a registry of disabled residents and each public health department knows exactly who are its responsibility in a disaster, said Jeffrey Goldhagen, director of the Duval County Health Department.
In most cases, he said, these departments already have written permission to enter the home of an elderly or disabled person.