Wildfires, Ice Storms & Hurricanes: Seniors Often Hit Hardest When Disaster Strikes

Wildfire burning out of control.

As natural disasters strike more often and harder thanks to climate change, seniors are paying an especially steep price. Photo: Kevin Sullivan/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Canada is facing its worse-ever wildfire season, with hundreds of blazes sweeping through the country. As smoke chokes our cities, and thousands of people are forced from their homes, older Canadians and people with pre-existing medical conditions face potentially serious health consequences. With this in mind, we revisit our story from 2018 on how seniors are often among those hardest hit when disaster strikes.


As the population ages and natural disasters grow increasingly calamitous, Alex Roslin says it’s time emergency agencies developed plans to look after those who are always hardest hit — seniors.

The floodwater from the Rivière des Prairies rose slowly at first, then quickly. Rene LeBlanc, 71, watched with great alarm a block away from the river, on Des Maçons Street in Montreal’s West Island.

LeBlanc had spent a lifetime thinking about disasters and risks of various kinds. Now retired, he had worked 45 years in insurance, specializing in loss prevention. When the river overflowed onto his street, he sprang into action, picking things off the floor in his basement in case it was inundated.

LeBlanc was still downstairs with his daughter and two sons, who had come to help, when the rapidly rising floodwater encircled his house and started to pour down an outside staircase that led to the basement. A wall of water sent the door flying open with a loud bang and crashed inside, propelling the furnace through a wall.

LeBlanc had just enough time to shut off the power and get out of the basement before it was submerged in six feet of water four minutes later. And so their basement remained for five days until the floodwater started to recede. LeBlanc and his wife had to stay elsewhere for three months while repairing their house. They were among 4,000 people in 278 Quebec municipalities forced to evacuate due to springtime floods in May 2017. (Nine months later, as of mid-December, about 300 people had still not been able to move back into their homes because of ongoing repairs.)

Seniors were among those hardest hit. They represented about a quarter of those who got help from the Red Cross, with one in 20 aged 80 and up. Yet emergency efforts to help seniors were haphazard and poorly co-ordinated, LeBlanc said. Seniors on Des Maçons Street were left to their own devices, relying on family or neighbours to evacuate, he said, with no help from authorities.

“I didn’t expect to be almost abandoned and forgotten,” he noted. “We expect this in developing countries, not in Canada. Seniors had a lot of stress. We saw nothing for them. We had to count on each other. The authorities weren’t prepared for the event and were unsure how to react.”

A nearby resident, Marie-Josée Auger, got out her canoe to evacuate flooded seniors. “They were shocked and in tears,” she said. “Seniors were completely dependent on their families. If they didn’t have families, they were alone.”

The problems continued after the flood, as seniors struggled to decipher the province’s convoluted, glacially slow process to get disaster relief funds. Even with LeBlanc’s background in insurance and a 12-year stint as a city councillor, he still laboured to navigate the bureaucracy. “You have to leave message after message. They don’t respond to emails. It’s absolutely inefficient and confusing. Double that when you’re a senior,” he said, recounting how he helped other seniors grapple with the process. “Their eyes were full of tears, saying, ‘What do I do?’ They have a feeling there’s nobody around to help.”

In September, to protest the botched government response, LeBlanc helped organize a demonstration that drew about 100 angry flood victims to march outside the office of provincial public security minister Martin Coiteux. One 66-year-old woman carried a sign that read I Want to Go Home.

As disasters strike more often and harder thanks to climate change, seniors are paying an especially steep price yet emergency officials in Canada and elsewhere have been slow to respond to a fast-growing list of tragedies.
When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, more than 70 per cent of the 1,800 people killed were more than 60 years old. Half were 75 or older. Almost 70 nursing home residents died in their facilities, many reportedly abandoned by their caretakers.

Katrina was a wake-up call for emergency management authorities. The horror of the deaths helped convince the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to create an Office of Disability Integration and Co-ordination, which improved access for seniors to emergency services such as shelters, transportation and communications.

FEMA also consulted on disaster planning with AARP, the main seniors association in the U.S. Some states, such as Louisiana, followed suit with similar measures. (FEMA told Zoomer that Canadians visiting the U.S. can use emergency services during a disaster – for example, shelters, food aid and crisis counselling.)

Still, seniors keep getting walloped in disasters. They made up half of the fatalities in Hurricane Sandy, which struck the U.S. east coast in 2012. In the wildfires in northern California last October, the average age of those killed was 79. In the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, nearly two-thirds of those killed were over 60.

The new measures also didn’t help seniors living in the La Vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson, Texas, when Hurricane Harvey struck last August. The residents, most of whom used wheelchairs and oxygen-breathing devices, were told not to evacuate but simply ride out the calamity. When water flooded the nursing home, owner Trudy Lampson called authorities for help but was told first responders couldn’t come. Lampson’s son-in-law turned to Twitter, posting a photo of the seniors sitting and wading in waist-deep murky brown water. When the photo went viral, the National Guard rescued the residents.

Nursing home residents wait to be rescued in waist high flood waters.
Texas: Damage from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 forced these nursing-home residents to wait for help in flood waters that had risen to waist levels. Photo: Timothy J. McIntosh


Seniors staying at the Rehabilitation Center in Hollywood Hills, Fla., weren’t as fortunate when Hurricane Irma struck in September. The nursing home lost power and couldn’t operate its air conditioning, leading to sweltering heat that killed 12 seniors. The 12 heat-related deaths were ruled to be homicides amid reports that poor communication and planning contributed to the tragedy.

Paul Timmons has been warning about the risks to seniors
for years. He is president of Port-light Inclusive Disaster Strategies, a South Carolina-based non-profit that delivers medical supplies to seniors and people with disabilities during disasters, including Harvey and Irma.

A week after the Rehabilitation Center tragedy, Timmons didn’t mince words in testimony he gave at a U.S. Senate hearing on disasters and seniors. Seniors “have once again paid the price for our collective emergency planning  shortfalls,” he said. “Most have been denied their basic right to equal access to federally funded emergency programs and services.” In an interview, he said seniors are still often not consulted in disaster planning, while emergency measures are in many cases inaccessible to them. “Seldom do we run across a shelter that does not have an access issue. Almost never do you find accessible transportation made available,” he said.

“It is horrifying,” AARP Florida spokesman David Bruns said of the Rehabilitation Center deaths. “We here in Florida thought we had this situation covered. Irma showed we did not. Mother Nature has a way of finding the flaws you didn’t know existed.” He has called on the state to require seniors’ homes to have backup power and regularly tested emergency plans. He said authorities should also promptly visit seniors’ homes when disasters strike to see if help is needed.

As the population ages and disasters get worse, Bruns says, “We’re always a step behind the emerging reality. In Florida, we have one of the best emergency management systems in the world. What is it like in places where it’s not as good?” One example is the Caribbean, where thousands of vacationing Canadians were stranded when Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck last September.

Many were eventually evacuated with help from the Canadian government, but local residents didn’t fare as well. Three months after Maria struck Puerto Rico, power was still out on 45 per cent of the island, including in the town of San Lorenzo, which suffered a direct hit by the hurricane’s eye. “My house was shaking like an earthquake,” local resident Rubén Camacho, 70, told Zoomer. Afterward, he and his wife had to move from the island because she needs a fridge to preserve medications. They relocated to their daughter’s three-bedroom apartment in Orlando, Fla., where 11 members of the Camacho family have lived since September. The only government help they’ve received is food stamps. Camacho is still waiting for an answer to his request for aid to repair his home. “Seniors suffered a lot. If they had no family close, it was difficult.”

Canada also appears to lag well behind mainland U.S., as authorities here seem particularly slow to recognize seniors’ needs in disasters, consult them in planning and ensure emergency measures are accessible. What’s worse, Canada is mired in a patchwork of different approaches to disaster preparedness in various jurisdictions, undermining accountability and transparency.

In flood-impacted Quebec, the public security ministry couldn’t name a single seniors group it had consulted as part of its disaster preparedness and didn’t have any data on how seniors are affected by disasters or how accessible emergency services are for seniors. The province seems to wash its hands of responsibility, saying emergency preparedness is largely the responsibility of individuals and municipalities. “It is primarily up to citizens to ensure they and their family are safe [in a disaster],” department spokesman Olivier Cantin said in an email.

Quebec municipalities don’t seem to be doing much better. Under the province’s Loi sur la sécurité civile, municipalities are required to create an emergency management plan that addresses local population risks, including those to groups such as seniors. Yet, 17 years after the law was adopted in 2001, only 60 per cent of municipalities have such a plan, Cantin acknowledged. He didn’t respond to emailed questions asking why the province had not required municipalities to act.

Nationally, the response is poor, too. The federal government’s Emergency Management Framework, which gives guidance to disaster management personnel across the country, does not mention seniors once. No seniors group is represented on a federal advisory committee that advises the government on disaster risk reduction.

The message seems to be: seniors must help themselves. Andrew Gowing, spokesman for the federal public safety ministry, emailed a link with tips on how seniors can create an emergency plan. It suggests making an emergency contact list of people who can help you, familiarizing yourself with escape routes and preparing an emergency kit.

Critics say this kind of approach may give useful advice, but it can also create a false sense of security and, worse, deflects from government responsibility to protect vulnerable people. Paul Timmons of the group Portlight said it’s tantamount to blaming seniors for the failings of authorities. “The potential for scapegoating [seniors] is rife. It is the responsibility of people in this business [of disaster management] to get this right,” he said.

To illustrate the problem, Timmons, 58, cites his own experiences when Hurricane Matthew hit the U.S. eastern seaboard last October. “I probably have a better plan than most people,” he said. “Fifteen minutes into it, my plan turned to shit. That’s because these things are chaotic.” He got stuck with other fleeing people in highway gridlock, separated from his wife who had the misfortune of falling and needing to go to the hospital with a dislocated shoulder, just as Matthew bore down. “This was every bit as shitty of a day as it sounds,” he said.

Doreen Needham, 87, weeps as she reads her diary entry about “the worst day of my life” – the day in June 2013 when the overflowing Highwood River forced her and husband Lyle out of their home in High River, Alta., just south of Calgary.

As floodwater inundated the town – and many other Alberta communities – the power went off, and the Needhams couldn’t open their garage door to escape by car. “I was feeling very sick watching the water rising up the front steps,” she said.

At one point, Needham saw a geranium plant floating by her house. She called to a neighbour, who was standing in the rising water. “I’m sending you a bouquet!” she said. But as the water level kept going up, so did her panic. “I was preparing myself for death. I lay on the couch, hoping that would help,” she reads from her diary and bursts into tears.

The Needhams were rescued a few hours later by motorboat. They had to live elsewhere for a month while they cleaned out their flooded basement. Needham and a local photographer, Jane Russell, later recorded more than 200 stories from flood victims in a book titled Stories of the High River Flood.

Writing the book was “part of the healing process,” Needham said. “We [seniors] were probably devastated more than younger people because they have more energy to snap back. I find anything I get anxious about almost puts me in that panic again.” Today, she tries to focus on the bright side. “Hey, the flood helped me clean up my basement!”

Jennifer McManus has seen first-hand how disasters can especially impact seniors, who often need more time to get back on their feet and who feel more acute stress [when they’re forced to leave their community]. As head of the Red Cross in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, she’s been busy coping with some of Canada’s worst-ever disasters. Apart from the 2013 flood, which forced about 100,000 from their homes, there was also the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire, which led to the evacuation of 7,000, and the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, which forced 80,000 to flee.

A scorched pickup truck on a residential street in Alberta Fort McMurray after the fires.
Alberta: The 2011 fires in Slave Lake and the 2016 fires in Fort McMurray left the Red Cross scrambling to find suitable temporary housing for evacuated seniors. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images


Like elsewhere, seniors in Alberta “are often impacted in unique ways,” McManus said. “It was really hard on our teams because the needs [of seniors] were so high and living conditions were very challenging [during the evacuations].” She said authorities need to work together to help seniors in disasters. Emergency officials should do more mock exercises focusing on integrating seniors and make emergency measures fully accessible. Disaster alerts also should go out in a variety of ways, not only via digital technology, which many seniors don’t use.

“Accessibility is an area where collectively we can improve greatly,” she said. “I think we could do much more proactive work in drawing on the expertise of those who work with seniors every day.” Seniors should be seen as an important resource in a disaster, McManus added. “They have a wealth of wisdom, knowledge and resilience and are a tremendous calming force in shelters because of their experience dealing with adversity.”

The Alberta Emergency Manage-ment Authority, which co-ordinates disaster response in the province, didn’t respond to requests for comment. No seniors groups are represented on a council of non-profit groups that advises the province on disaster management.

Back in Montreal, LeBlanc was almost finished the repairs to his house as Christmas 2017 approached. The final job: rebuilding the stairs to his basement. He lamented lost Christmas decorations, family pictures, souvenirs and furniture – all trashed in the flood. He, too, said seniors need a voice in disaster planning and should never again be forgotten in an emergency, like he believes they were in the Quebec flood. “Here we are seven months later, and there are still a lot of unresolved consequences. What’s going to happen if we get a big one?” he asks. “Because this was just a warning as far as I’m concerned.” It’s a question he hopes we aren’t still asking when the next disaster strikes.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2018 issue with the headline, “When Disaster Strikes,” p. 62.