The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wants everybody to be as prepared for natural disasters as they can be. But FEMA’s placing a new emphasis on older adults. The agency said older Americans are more susceptible to the consequences of disasters. A new disaster preparedness guide tries to help local emergency managers and other stakeholders deal with that reality. For more, Federal News Network Deputy Editor Jared Serbu talked with Sherman Gillums, the Director of FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
Jared Serbu Get us started by talking a bit about, you know, why the focus on older adults? Why is this a messaging approach that that FEMA decided was important at this point?
Sherman Gillums Well, FEMA has been partnering with the Ad Council for nearly two decades, and a lot of it was focused on general preparedness. And of course, older adults are a part of our community. So there was no exception there. The problem is, statistically, older adults are more likely to be abandoned or unprepared in the event of a weather event or extreme weather. And a lot of this is really about, first of all, acknowledging that their needs may differ from the general population, but also hearing from them and their caregivers was an important part of this. And so we embarked upon a campaign to not just recognize that their their needs are different, but also provide specific content and information that’s about giving control back to older adults in their families. That’s why it’s called the take control campaign. There are three aspects to it. The first aspect is to assess needs. Everybody has basic needs that are similar, but when you’re an older adult or when you’re an older adult with a disability who may have a fixed income or live in a rural area, the needs are going to be a bit different. And these disasters don’t care where they go. They go wherever they happen to go. In this case, assessing the needs in the event someone is displaced or may not have a neighbor nearby. We need to know that in advance. The second part of that is making a plan. And this is where a lot of people have trouble, because if you’ve never been in disaster, it’s a little hard to plan for something that never happened to you. That’s why Ready.gov/olderadults has plenty of resources that are based on the experiences of people who have been in disasters in the past, many older adults. We also talked with folks from the Roslyn Carter Institute, AARP, Alzheimer’s Association to truly understand what’s at stake and what’s at play when folks are making decisions on whether to evacuate. And the last part of it is to engage your support networks. Make sure your neighbors know who you are and what your needs may be, so that in the event that the true first responders, which are your neighbors, know what to do in the event of an emergency.
Jared Serbu A lot of what you just said sounds like it’s generally applicable to everybody. You know, assessing your needs in advance and making a plan sounds like good advice to people of all ages. You mentioned that older adults needs differ, though. In what ways? And FEMA’s experience.
Sherman Gillums Well, about 27% of older adults in the U.S. live alone, many of them on fixed incomes. And while we’re talking about aspects of recovery, such as relocation, in many cases, there may be there may need to be a continuity of care aspect to their lives. How do you get access to medical care when your community has been leveled, as we saw in Rolling Fork in places in Selma? And so a lot of it is about understanding that there are two things at play. One, that their needs are unique to that individual. But two, they also want some semblance of control. And a lot of times it’s been taken from them as they age. But certainly in a disaster when a lot of us feel like we’ve lost control. These are people it’s hard to get that back when it’s gone too far. So we want to put people in a position to be able to speak and give voice to their needs. And older adults are not always in a position to do that, especially if they have a caretaker or a caregiver who’s making those decisions for them.
Jared Serbu What is the agency doing to work with state and locals, for example, other stakeholders at the local level to help spread this message and to help do some of this advance coordination?
Sherman Gillums Well, a major aspect of the Ready campaign and in this case, we’re getting ready for the winter ready campaign. It’s about empowering state, local, territory and tribal emergency managers and leaders, all with preparedness content to send down to all the respective constituents and making sure that they have enough information to provide people with aspects of readiness that if it’s not there, it becomes apparent when a disaster is imminent or when it happens. In this case, we want to make sure all up and down the readiness scale that everyone is sharing the same thing, understanding the same thing. And that’s what this campaign is really about, in addition to stakeholders. So it’s not just the emergency responders. It’s also the stakeholders who know the communities the best.
Jared Serbu And how well is FEMA prepared to to actually tackle these issues? It always feels like there’s more natural disasters happening in any given year. I wonder if that’s actually true from FEMA’s perspective in 2023. And how well staffed are your teams to handle these kinds of things?
Sherman Gillums I’ll start by saying we’re staffed as well as we need to be. No matter what’s happening around society, we’re always going to continue to make readiness a priority. What’s quantitatively true is the number of billion dollar disasters. We’ve already exceeded the 2022 number of billion dollar disasters, which was a record year. So in 2023, we have seen more disasters, but there’s also been a corresponding decrease in fatalities. I can’t say what that’s a tribute to. All I can say is we’ve been really proactive with our messaging. We see big storms in Guam, in places like Florida, California, where people are heeding the information. There’s a lot of cooperation up and down the chain, but there is in fact, there are, in fact, more storms. And climate adaptation is the term of the day. And that’s what we’re trying to do by making citizens and anyone who may be in a disaster more ready to prepare for it. If I could reiterate, accessing ready.gov/olderadults, there’s a lot of information that applies to folks with disabilities, caregivers. That’s a big part of this that often gets missed. But we want to make sure that they know about their resource and and make their plans accordingly.