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Senate Seeks Plan to Evacuate Elderly in Disaster

More than a dozen nursing homes in Louisiana are being investigated for their treatment of patients during Hurricane Katrina. Dozens died, abandoned in the storm.

Calling the abandonment of the elderly "the most disgraceful" tragedy to occur as a result of Katrina, Republican Senator Gordon Smith called a hearing of the Special Committee on Aging to prevent it from happening again.

Emergency planners from various communities came to share their experiences and told the Senators again and again that in order to have a successful evacuation plan for America's most vulnerable citizens, communication and collaboration among government agencies are key.

But Jeffrey Goldhagen, director of the Duval County Health Department in Jacksonville, Florida said one group must take the lead when a hurricane, or other emergency strikes a community.

"Fundamentally, the responsibility for that first response and for the health and well-being of special needs citizens -- including the elderly," he said, "fall fairly straightforwardly on the shoulders of the local public health department." When questioned whether it should be otherwise, Mr. Goldhagen was quick to answer, "no."

Mr. Goldhagen told Senators his department is responsible for coordinating a plan with hospitals, nursing homes, medical personnel and medical suppliers, among others. If something isn't working, he explained, the Department of Health steps in and takes charge. That's exactly what it did last year, when officials realized the ambulance companies had contracts with multiple facilities, and couldn't possibly be at all of them at the same time. It was a problem that hindered evacuation of nursing homes in New Orleans.

But in Jacksonville, Mr. Goldhagen said, "The Health Department stepped in, took over the ambulance, (and) got the hospital evacuated early." That, he said, "assured the system was in place to evacuate each of the nursing homes that needed to be evacuated."

The elderly have special needs. Maria Greene of Georgia's Division on Aging Services told lawmakers knowing what accommodations are needed should be assessed well in advance of an emergency evacuation. "We know that older people and people with disabilities, you will need more time to help them move," she said. " You also have their wheelchairs, their walkers, their medicines and their records that would be helpful to go with them."

In Georgia, Ms. Greene said, those elderly who live on their own and would need assistance in the event of an evacuation are encouraged to register with their local police or emergency medical services.

That's also the case in Jacksonville, Florida. Jeffrey Goldhagen said his department encourages senior citizens to add their names to an emergency evacuation list by putting an appeal in their utility bill.

"All of that information goes into a searchable database," he said, "(that includes) demographics on the individual, who the person's physician is, what pharmacy they use, what medications they have, who their emergency contacts are in and out of town, permission to search their home after an event, what special medical needs they, what transportation requirements they have and so on."

According to Carolyn Wilken, a professor of gerontology at Florida State University, during a recent storm, officials in the Florida Keys put their registry to use. "As the hurricane formed, older Americans on the registry were contacted by phone to assess their evacuation plans and transportation needs," she said. "A minimum of three follow-up phone calls were made to assure that each person was given the opportunity to evacuate."

Ms. Wilken told the Senate Special Committee on Aging that older adults comprise more than 50% of the fatalities in a natural disaster. She and other witnesses testifying at the hearing emphasized that the situation can be improved with communication, cooperation… and planning.