United States Senate Special Committee on Aging

Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina had a disproportionate impact on older Americans. Many New Orleans residents that did not evacuate prior to the storm were elderly individuals either not physically able to leave the city or lacking access to transportation. Additionally, it appears that evacuation plans at some nursing homes and other care facilities were ignored or never carried out -- 30 residents of a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish drowned in the flood waters. Regardless of whether it was lack of planning or lack of information that led to this tragic result, Senator Kohl believes we have an obligation to make sure it is not repeated in future disasters.

While many lives would have been saved if more effective evacuation plans were in place, the failure of the government to react effectively in the immediate aftermath of the storm most likely caused countless more deaths and unnecessary suffering. Media reports have told of deplorable conditions in hospitals and care facilities where, after surviving the actual storm, many patients died due to a lack of basic medical supplies and power to operate life sustaining technologies. Finally, the experiences of the elderly evacuees scattered across the country today are just starting to highlight their unique needs for housing, medical care in the absence of medical records, and transportation suited to those with limited mobility.

While nothing can be done to bring solace to the individuals that have suffered and lost loved ones, it is imperative that we prevent this type of tragedy from happening in the future. Senator Kohl requested an investigation by the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General into the circumstances surrounding the federal government�s failure to effectively respond to the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, specifically looking at health care facilities that provide services to seniors. The report also focused on the failures related to older Americans�in particular, the failures related to the evacuation and/or care of nursing home residents, homebound and isolated seniors, as well as other individuals with special needs.

In May of 2006, Kohl co-chaired a Special Committee on Aging hearing to review what steps must still be taken to ensure the safety of seniors in future national emergencies, including natural disasters, potential terrorist attacks, or avian flu pandemic. At the hearing, witnesses testified that seniors need more information to prepare for emergencies, first responders need better training to help seniors, and communities need plans to locate seniors who live alone during and after an emergency. He released a report in October of 2006 outlining recommendations from the hearing�s witnesses and other interested groups. The report is intended to inform decision makers on all levels: federal, state and local emergency planners, first responders, law enforcement, advocates, seniors, and their families and friends.

Senator Kohl plans to introduce emergency preparedness legislation during the 110th Congress to address the evacuation and health care needs of America�s seniors during a national emergency, based on recommendations borne from last year�s hearing.