Senate panel focuses on preparedness for seniors, people with disabilities during disasters

WASHINGTON — Seniors and people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable during disasters like hurricanes and fires or public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Senate panel heard from disaster response experts Thursday about the urgent need to make sure they are prepared for emergencies and can recover after they occur.

Danielle Koerner is the Volunteer Management Coordinator for the Delaware County Department of Emergency Services in Pennsylvania and knows firsthand about preparing for disasters.

“One size never fits all,” Koerner told the committee.

But it’s not just work for Koerner – it’s personal, too.

She told lawmakers she cared for her late mother, who had Alzheimer’s, and her young son with disabilities.

“I built contingency plans for care, kept outgrown medical equipment in case something broke, and kept extra comfort items in strategic areas to soothe fears and calm erratic behaviors,” said Koerner.

Koerner shared her experience with the Senate panel to shed light on the critical need to make sure there are plans in place to care for the most vulnerable people when disasters hit.

A huge part of the challenge is making sure seniors and people with disabilities have access to their everyday healthcare needs during an emergency.

“Disruptions and access to healthcare and necessary support are a critical need to be addressed in inclusive disaster management,” said Dr. Sue Anne Bell, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan.

A loss of electricity or transportation can have serious or deadly consequences if there isn’t a plan in place.

“Treatment for chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes can often be delayed for periods of time leading to unfortunately poor health outcomes,” said Dr. Wanda Spurlock, Professor in the College of Nursing and Allied Health at Southern University and A&M College.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) sponsored a bill called the “Real Emergency Access for Aging and Disability Inclusion for Disasters Act (REAADI for Disasters Act).

The bill establishes programs and requirements to help people with disabilities and the elderly with disaster preparations.

“This bill will ensure seniors and people with disabilities have a voice at every stage of disaster management,” said Casey.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) sponsored another bill aimed at helping vulnerable people during disasters called the “FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries Act” (FEED Act).

The bill allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to approve government partnerships with restaurants and nonprofits to make sure people don’t go hungry during disasters.

“The FEED Act would increase food security for older Americans and others during emergencies by opening up a pathway for food producers, restaurants, and nonprofits to partner with their state and local governments to meet the needs on the ground,” said Scott.

The witnesses who testified urged Congress to push for more coordination between public and private agencies to make sure seniors and people with disabilities aren’t left behind during disasters.

“The reality is if we want to be successful in disaster mitigation, work must also be done in the fields that operate independent from emergency management,” said Koerner.