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What’s Brewing on the Disaster Preparedness Front?
posted 10.23.2012

By Jennifer Campbell

It has been a little over a year since a tornado killed 161 people in Joplin, Mo. And almost half of them were older adults. Although no amount of disaster planning could stop the tornado, good planning and organization enabled the community to mobilize quickly. Meals on Wheels volunteers—mostly older adults themselves—immediately reached out to their clients, bringing meals day after day to reassure and comfort the most isolated elders. Community agencies came together to form the Long Term Recovery Committee, pooling information and resources in a coordinated effort to help the community through its long journey of grappling with grief while caring for the living and rebuilding.

In considering Joplin’s journey, it is clear much has changed in disaster preparation and response since  Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Although many of these changes are interesting and important, they are challenging to understand due to the government “alphabet soup–speak” that surrounds them. Some acronyms are familiar, some are new. This brief primer highlights who is doing what in disaster preparedness work, why we should care and what is new and worth a closer look.

Agencies Get Busy

The Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA). PAHPA was put into effect in 2006, post-Katrina. Its purpose was to “improve the Nation’s public health and medical preparedness and response capabilities for emergencies, whether deliberate, accidental or natural.” It also established a new office focused on medical preparedness,and a National Health Security Strategy. This set into motion changes in leadership, administration and planning for disaster preparedness.

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) delegates to ASPR the leadership role for all health and medical services support functions in a health emergency or public health event. The creation of ASPR consolidated planning for disasters and helped to build federal emergency medical operational capacity during an emergency or disaster.

At Risk, Behavioral Health and Community Resilience (ABC). Within ASPR, the ABC division focuses on emergency preparedness and response for people with functional challenges in accessing health and emergency services. Many elders are in this category. The ABC division also focuses on building resilient communities that are prepared for disasters and can recover from adversity. Older adults can be a real asset, as communities rely upon their members who have had previous experience with disasters.

The Administration for Commun-ity Living (ACL). The Administration on Aging (AOA) has become a part of the ACL. Staff from the ACL collaborate with ASPR and other federal agencies to promote disaster preparedness planning and provide technical guidance and information regarding disaster preparedness. AOA also provides emergency preparedness information.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—Healthy Aging Program. This is a branch of the CDC that produces content on the specific vulnerabilities of older adults and resources to better protect them. One of their recent publications is described below.

Pubs and Apps to Depend On

So now that we have established who is in charge of what, what is new that has emerged from this mix?

Released in March 2012, a new publication by the CDC Healthy Aging Program called Identifying Vulnerable Adults and Legal Options for Increasing Their Protection During All-Hazards Emegencies: A Cross-Sector Guide for States and Communities, covers developing plans, partnering and collaboration, using data for action, building registries, using law-based solutions, sheltering and caregiver preparedness. Besides being informative, it is a very good read, full of examples of the exciting and innovative work communities are doing to improve how older adults fare in a disaster.

Another new release, this one by ASPR, is the Implementation Plan for the National Health Security Strategy from May 2012. It outlines 10 strategic objectives, including fostering integrated, scalable healthcare delivery systems. The plan is national—not federal. Agencies at all levels of government worked on the document in concert with academia, private industry and community organizations. The plan provides a common vision for national health security and outlines actions that will advance public health and medical preparedness, response and recovery capabilities in communities across the country.

Finally, there is the new bReddi Facebook application. ASPR held a “Facebook Lifeline Application Challenge” to encourage people to establish social connections in advance of an emergency. The bReddi app won. It is a simple application that helps people think about their three key connections. In the event of a disaster, who are their lifelines? By completing the Facebook bReddi questions, older adults—and their lifelines—are all clearer about these vital connections and responsibilities.

The shift in disaster preparedness for older adults is palpable. Older adults provide an important resource in terms of resilience for their communities. No longer a separate constituency, they are part of a larger population, with unique needs. Also, disaster preparedness is something that happens every day, not just when a disaster looms imminent. Pushing the envelope with social networking and older adults is just one of the many innovations in disaster preparedness. Thus, the lens of disaster preparedness is providing an important tool to look at efforts that keep the most vulnerable among us connected and prepared—regardless of when and how a disaster strikes.

Jennifer Campbell, Ph.D., is currently a consultant with Grantmakers In Aging, and served as their Director of the Hurricane Fund for the Elderly which brought over $5 million in funding to rebuilding services for older adults in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama after Hurricane Katrina. She also teaches at the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College. Contact her at

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the November/December 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.

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