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A Lesson Unlearned From Hurricane Katrina

The elderly are still the most vulnerable to severe weather events.
(Photo: Jorg Hackemann/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Jorg Hackemann/Shutterstock)

My cousin, El Henican, died earlier this summer, almost 10 years after Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath devastated our hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana. When Katrina hit, 71-year old El rode out the storm in his French Quarter home. He’d seen storms come and go—Betsy, Camille, and many others—and he was not going to leave.

Several days later, he finally evacuated to Jackson, Mississippi. That was as far as his gas tank would get him, and he began to understand the scope of destruction to the city we both loved.

Almost half of the deaths immediately following Hurricane Katrina were among older adults over the age of 75.

As we remember Katrina on its 10th anniversary, I have been thinking about how lucky my cousin was to survive: Older adults are particularly at risk in severe weather events, and plans for climate preparedness in our aging country need to include a special focus on this at-risk population.

In the chaotic days after Katrina, older adults were at greater risk for dying—either by disease or by drowning. Almost half of the deaths immediately following the hurricane were among older adults over the age of 75. And among the oldest of the old—those 80 or older—patterns of death and disease were striking: They accounted for 41 percent of emergency treatment visits for illness due to chronic diseases.

Several elements make older adults more vulnerable to the effects of severe weather events: lower physiological reserve capacities; slower metabolisms; immune systems that respond more slowly; and higher rates of chronic disease. The net result is that older adults are less resilient when facing the stresses of extreme events. In Katrina’s aftermath, with no air conditioning and high temperatures and high humidity, for example, older adults had a harder time regulating their body temperatures, leaving them vulnerable to dehydration and heat stroke.

Are we now more prepared to protect older adults in the face of increased vulnerability to extreme weather events? There’s good news and bad news.

The good news: We now understand that Katrina and its aftermath were examples of a larger pattern of extreme weather events that are increasing in frequency as the global climate changes. In addition, as the most recent national climate assessment makes clear, certain groups are more vulnerable to a range of climate-related health impacts, including older adults, children, those living in poverty, and those already ill.

The bad news: That same national climate assessment uses Katrina and its aftermath as an example of a catastrophic failure of public health services. To develop individual and community resilience in the face of increasing extreme heat, storm, and flooding events requires supporting public health and emergency services targeted at the most vulnerable populations. Through executive order, the federal government is mobilizing public health officials to prepare for climate change, but much remains to be done.

Are the public health services of New Orleans better prepared now than they were then? Would more of today’s Crescent City elderly survive a storm of that magnitude? These are the questions we should be asking our public officials 10 years after Katrina.