Op-Ed: Lessons I Learned From Sheltering With Seniors During Hurricane Ian

A highway road sign directs weather evacuees to safety.

Darwin Brandis / Getty Images

Last Monday evening, I finished my volunteer shift at a hospital in Naples, Florida.

By Wednesday, I was taking shelter with strangers in a hotel basement.

I was fortunate to get through Hurricane Ian safely with my husband, mom, brother, and two dogs. The loss of power (literally and figuratively) allowed me to reflect on lessons I learned about managing a disaster.

And so did my senior shelter mates.

In that hotel basement, my family waited out the storm alongside several older adults, who sat huddled around a table of power stations trying to contact insurance agents, pharmacies, and family.

Two had their emergency contacts saved not in a cell phone, but in notebooks and manila folders scattered around the table. I helped a few connect to the internet and noticed several flip phones plugged into the charging station. All the while, the most annoying cell phone ring blasted endlessly from a pile of suitcases.

It dawned on me that this hardy group of low-tech seniors likely lived through a handful of hurricanes, recessions, wars, and pandemics. Emergencies get harder as the body and mind age. Hurricane Ian was a big one, probably more devastating than any other storm they had weathered. Here they were, alone but with a plan. And it was working; they were safe.

Florida is a popular state for older adults, and the cohort is growing alongside natural disasters. Nationwide, people are living longer; the 85+ group is now 53 times larger than it was in 1900. And these older adults often live alone. 

Take my mom, for instance. She is one of the 42% of women in this country over the age of 75 living alone. 

Living alone is tough for anyone during a flood and power outage, but it’s especially treacherous for the elderly, disabled, and under-resourced.

That’s why it’s so essential to get organized and have an emergency-preparedness plan. In my experience, there are several key questions to consider: 

  1. What is your emergency plan A, B, and C? Plan your shelter location in the event of an evacuation, and know where you may need to go after that. All plans should account for obstacles and the need to pivot. My family knew we were going to the community evacuation center for our zone (a high school) followed by a hotel. And we knew we’d have to accommodate a very large dog.
  2. Do you know your zone and evacuation route? Follow and track your community resources now. Community emergency service workers are always willing to share advice. The easiest way to access it is via the internet, whether that's websites or live social media updates. The Naples police department, for example, has maintained regular Twitter updates about hurricane-related alerts, sheltering information, and disaster relief support.
  3. Do you have an emergency kit ready to grab and go? It should include critical papers, a government ID, a flash-light, power charger, medication, water, and some food.
  4. Are your essential assets readily available if given only hours to evacuate? I refer to these as your “keys to life”—those documents, whether paper or electronic, that you need to function in society. This includes passports, cash, wills, medical records, safety deposit keys, legal papers, and pass codes. For some, it may even include photos. When all is lost, you discover what fits in a box is the only material thing needed. 
  5. What is the post-emergency plan if you can’t return home?

If I could impart one lesson from Hurricane Ian, it would be when in doubt, get out. But I know I say that as a person with resources and experience in emergency planning. My family had a plan, resources, our pets, and each other—and we still feel exceptionally fortunate that we survived. To date, over 100 people have died, and thousands are still reported missing.

Previous “false alarms” gave many seniors a false sense of security to ride out the storm. Many believed that the media was hyping the storm for ratings. This time, however, it was the real deal.

Many who could afford to leave, whether financially or physically, did. Those who did not or could not played a game of roulette. Some won and some lost everything.

We will rebuild, but we should be better prepared for the future. This isn’t the first hurricane and won’t be the last. We cannot eliminate risk, but together with proper planning and foresight, we can mitigate it.

By Meg Fitzgerald
Meghan Fitzgerald, RN, MPH, DrPH, is an adjunct associate professor with the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a private equity investor.