Lessons from the Storm: Helping the Elderly

I hope last month’s story and the series of recommendations that follow highlight actionable lessons about preparing for and recovering from coastal storms.

Understanding the realities of living on the coast. People are drawn to the coast and will continue to live there. Therefore, what can we do to help coastal residents be better prepared? First, people must recognize that living on the coast has inherent risk and they should recognize this reality and plan accordingly.

Consider taking action to reduce the vulnerability of your home to hurricanes. While the bay house had hurricane shutters and a back up generator, it was built prior to the adoption of building codes or a Local Flood Ordinance. Homes built along our street after the Town of Shoreacres joined the National Flood Insurance Program were elevated approximately 8 feet higher than those that pre-dated this local requirement.

If your home is located in an area prone to storm surge, consider elevating it to at least the height required in your community’s Local Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance. Following federally-declared disasters, funds are available to pay for some or all of these costs. Check with your local floodplain administrator, or FEMA representative (fema.gov or floodsmart.gov) to see if you qualify for this type of assistance

Work with your community to protect natural systems like wetlands, coastlines and barrier islands that provide a protective buffer against the impacts of hurricanes. When the bay house was built, there was approximately 100 yards between the shoreline and the house. A long history of coastal erosion and subsidence has taken their toll. Today there is approximately 50 feet between the Galveston Bay and the front door.

Coastal erosion is a natural process which has been eating away at the shoreline over time. In the Galveston Bay Area, this process has been exacerbated by subsidence. Subsidence occurs when large volumes of groundwater are pumped out of subsurface reservoirs, causing the areas heavy clay soils to compact and sink. While the area no longer relies on groundwater, the irreparable damage was done. With the onset of climate change and sea level rise, the flood threat will only increase over time.

Educate people about the importance of evacuation. This is becoming increasingly important as our population ages and more retirees are moving to coastal areas. Those that have not grown up in areas prone to coastal storms are not fully aware of their damaging effects and the need to evacuate flood-prone areas.

Work with existing community groups or help establish a neighborhood-based organization capable of assisting the elderly prepare for hurricanes. Each of the issues described present great challenges once the storm passes. Non-profits and community and faith-based organizations are well suited to assist others as they are often trusted by members of the community and can more effectively reach out to the elderly and those who are often most vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes and other disasters.

Gavin Smith, Ph.D.
Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill