The fastest growing demographic group in America is senior citizens, a simple fact that should be guiding the City of LA as it goes through the charade of emergency preparedness planning, but one that isn’t even part of the dialogue.
The essence of emergency preparedness is based on the notion that in a true emergency, the people of Los Angeles must be self-sufficient, prepared to survive for days without public safety support, health services, water & power, sanitation, access to fresh food, or streets that work.
LA’s Fire Department conducts Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training that prepares community members for emergencies in a series of classes that progress from the basics of self-sufficiency to managing an evacuation shelter to advanced emergency medical skills.
The CERT training instills in individuals a hierarchy of emergency responses that is counterintuitive but essential, starting with protecting yourself, then protecting your loved ones, then protecting your neighbors. It may seem selfish to start with yourself but the message the instructors drill into the student’s heads is “You can’t help your loved ones and neighbors if you allow yourself to become an immobilized or dead victim.”
The CERT training in self-sufficiency is an extremely powerful experience with applications on preparedness that resonate through other non-emergency scenarios, demonstrating at every turn that the most powerful tool we possess is the one between your ears.
It also serves to dramatize a painful oversight that has the potential to leave our largest demographic group vulnerable and on their own in the next major earthquake or fire or catastrophe that requires neighborhoods to evacuate in large numbers.
Quite simply, LA’s current emergency preparedness instructions for the seniors in our community, many of whom are already experiencing a lack of self-sufficiency, is “In the event of a serious disaster, everyone should be self-sufficient for at least three days without help or emergency services.”
It doesn’t take an expert in gerontology to see the problem in this paradigm of emergency preparedness. Expecting a demographic group that is growing in numbers while experiencing a decrease in mobility and self-sufficiency in the best of times to suddenly become self-sufficient is simply civic malpractice.
Senior citizens currently represent 37% of our adult population and are projected to make up 45% by the year 2015. It’s estimated that men will outlive their ability to drive by 7 years, women by 10 years.
How then does the City of Los Angeles intend to guide this significantly sized and extremely vulnerable demographic group through the next emergency? By admonishing them to buy a “Go” bag and be prepared to evacuate on foot? By advising those who require assistance in the activities of daily living (ADL’s) such as grooming, dressing, going to the bathroom, and eating that they should be prepared to go several days on their own?
When Griffith Park was engulfed in fire and the adjacent Los Feliz neighborhood was evacuated, the surrounding streets and even the freeway was completely jammed with gridlock traffic. Residents walked out of the hillside community, some carrying a well fed lapcat or lapdog under one arm and a bag of prescription drugs under the other.
This is LA’s plan? Walk if you can, condolences if you can’t.
It was the CERT volunteers who set up the evacuation center at Marshall High School and provided services to those who were able to navigate the dark streets and find the solitary unlocked gate on a huge High School Campus. Other residents who were lucky enough to have friends and family near by, simply walked out of the neighborhood to prearranged pickup points and were whisked away to other neighborhoods.
But this scenario required the residents to self-mobilize and included no checks and balances to ensure that nobody was forgotten.
One would think that the City of LA would be better connected, that there would be some mechanism for identifying those who need assistance in an emergency and that there would be a plan in place for connecting with them.
In the summer of 1995, Chicago experienced a record heat wave that saw the city’s hard infrastructure buckle while the administration of city services simply collapsed, resulting in 739 excess deaths in one week.
At first glance, the explanation is simple, it was too hot and the most vulnerable died. But it wasn’t so simple.
In what was termed a “social autopsy,” researchers examined the factors that contributed to disproportionate numbers of casualties in some neighborhoods while equally physically vulnerable seniors in other neighborhoods survived the heat.
They discovered that it wasn’t the heat the killed 739 Chicago residents, it was isolation in the midst of a natural disaster.
Residents of communities with a strong social network were more likely to reach out to others when in crisis. Neighbors checked on each other and encouraged each other to move to cooling stations before it was too late.
Residents of communities with high mortality rates were made up of seniors who withdrew into their homes, who were less likely to answer a knock on the door, and who had no one to turn to when they were in crisis.
In other words, residents of neighborhoods with a strong “social ecology” survived while residents of neighborhoods that weren’t connected saw disproportionate casualties.
The City of LA has had over a decade to look at the Chicago experience and to evaluate LA’s emergency preparedness plan in the context of “connected communities” and the needs of our largest and most vulnerable constituent group and yet, where’s LA’s plan?
Well connected healthy communities are not only more likely to survive natural disasters but they also experience a reduction in crime and gang activity.
This was recently demonstrated when Mayor Villaraigosa and Police Chief Beck released the most recent crime data, touting the fact that crime rate was at the lowest that it’s been since the 50’s. The Mayor simply said it was “mind-boggling” but the Chief explained that it was due to good police work and the ever increasing role of the community in public safety.
One would think that these results would prompt the City of LA to double down on its social services commitment but the Mayor and the LAPD seem committed to the continual militarization of the police force rather than to an increasing commitment to engaging the community in the process.
This systemic dismissal of the importance of strong connected communities is evident as the LAPD moves forward with a plan to turn the old Rampart station into a SWAT station rather than fulfilling the wishes of the neighbors who envision a community center.
As for the seniors, they vote in greater numbers than any other age group yet they are forgotten during LA’s annual budget melee, victims of a Mayor and City Council that lacks the political will to commit basic resources to the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“Soft” health and social support services are delegated and redelegated, often falling on the shoulders of those who are ill-equipped or unwilling to accept responsibility. Through it all, it is the work of non-profit groups such as the Assistance League that creates the safety net and holds it together.
In times of calm, on any given day, LA’s police and fire departments respond to multiple calls from seniors who then receive transportation, emergency primary medical care, connection to social services, and safety support.
But…in times of disaster, the LAPD and the LAFD will be completely focused on the larger crisis and unable to respond to individual calls from residents who are limited in capabilities and mobility.
Watching Mayor Villaraigosa at the podium again, extolling the benefits of emergency preparedness, is to watch a demonstration in complete disconnect from reality.
Villaraigosa’s plan is to talk about preparedness while completely abdicating on his responsibility to implement a plan for connectivity, one that will take root now, not when it’s too late to do anything.
Dying young is a tragedy, but it pales in comparison to the real tragedy which is growing old in a city that takes you for granted and doesn’t have a plan for you in case of an emergency.
Seniors tend to live in one of five different housing arrangements, independently at their own home, in a retirement community with some support, at home but with some support, in an assisted living facility, and in a nursing home where physical and mental needs can be met.
If Villaraigosa is serious about emergency preparedness, he will produce five plans for LA’s senior community, demonstrating a commitment to connectivity that will ensure the survival of our most vulnerable yet significant age group.
If he can’t handle the task, it’s up to those of us who are willing and able. After all, we’ll all be there soon.