Aging Well: Preparing for the unthinkable

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Evacuation preparedness

VNA Emergency Preparedness and Response Coordinator Jim Johnsen will provide information about evacuation preparedness for older adults at noon Wednesday during Wellness Wednesdays at the American Legion in Craig. For more information, call 871-7676.

The Routt County Council on Aging will host his presentation in April at the Steamboat Springs Community Center. For information, call 879-0633.

Johnsen will gather contact information of older and/or disabled adults who may need special notification or additional help during a disaster or evacuation. This information will be passed on to local emergency dispatch offices. To include your name on the list, call Johnsen at 871-7632.

Resources

For more information about preparing for disaster/evacuation, visit www.fema.gov or www.redcross.org....

For an emergency preparedness checklist, visit www.whatifcolorad...

For information about preparing pets or horses for disaster, visit www.hsus.org.

The "it can't happen here" mentality makes Jim Johnsen's job challenging.

When he's not helping coordinate local emergency response, Johnsen educates people about how to prepare for devastating fires, floods or other man-made or natural disasters likely to happen, at some point, in our remote region of the state.

The salmonella outbreak that cut off the Alamosa city water supply for three weeks last year, or the Hayman fire that destroyed 132 Colorado homes in 2002, are examples of how large-scale emergencies can, and do, happen outside of big cities.

The wildfire threat in Northwest Colorado particularly is high and will continue to escalate because of the mountain pine beetle epidemic in our forests, Johnsen said.

But his aim isn't to scare people; it's to send the message that residents, as well as emergency responders, are responsible for preparing for disasters.

"It's got to start at home first," said Johnsen, emergency preparedness and response coordinator with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.

Good preparation, including an emergency plan and "go-kit," particularly is important for older adults and caregivers because of mobility, hearing and vision problems or conditions making it difficult for elders to respond to emergencies and evacuations.

Johnsen will speak about evacuation preparedness for older adults Wednesday during Wellness Wednesdays in Craig and next month in Steamboat Springs.

Five minutes

Offices of emergency management make and carry out evacuation plans. Managers consider weather forecasts, input from fire departments, federal land management agencies, water boards and other information when making evacuation decisions.

Officials usually notify residents of emergencies and evacuations with reverse 911 calls (land lines only) and neighborhood patrol.

People should be prepared for the worse-case evacuation scenario - having only five minutes to leave their homes. Amid the panic and confusion, it's going to be hard enough for them to get their family and pets out much less important items, Johnsen said.

Grabbing a "go-kit," or suitcase with rollers containing essential items, will ensure a person will have what they need in a shelter or away from home.

The kit should include sleeping gear, a blanket, money, identification, extra set of clothing, personal hygiene products, comfort items and copies of important documents such as deeds, passports and insurance policies - even if the originals are in a bank safe deposit box (in case the bank is inaccessible).

Older adults or their caregivers also should include a three-day supply of medications, copies of prescriptions, doctor contact information and pertinent supplies.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends individuals wear medical alert tags or bracelets and, if they have Alzheimer's disease or dementia, enroll in the Alzheimer's Association's Safe Return Program.

Emergency plan, networks

An important component of emergency preparedness is an emergency plan that includes alternate evacuation routes and a communication plan.

Instead of wasting evacuation time on the phone, or relying on cell phones, which may not work during emergencies because of network overload, people should establish a person out of the area that family members can call to keep track of each other.

The Red Cross's Safe and Well Web site allows people within a large-scale disaster area to post messages about their well-being or register with the program via telephone. Family members can check the Web site or call to see if there is information about a loved one.

Establishing a plan with friends or neighbors can be particularly important for individuals who may need extra help during an evacuation. Healthy people who have prepared for their own needs may be better able to check on others who are more vulnerable.

"It's the networking we all need to a better job with," Johnsen said.

Emergency networks also are important for pet owners, who are much less likely to evacuate if they have no place to shelter their pets. Most evacuation shelters accept only service animals.

Although Hurricane Katrina prompted the Red Cross, humane societies and other groups to begin developing animal evacuation plans, pet owners' should have their own plan in place that includes motels, boarding facilities, shelters and friends who will be able to take in their pet during an emergency.

Owners also might have a "go-kit" for their pet, including carriers, leashes, medications, food and water. Up-to-date identification, license tags and vaccinations will help ensure pets are accepted into any sheltering facilities.

Tamera Manzanares can be reached at tammarie74@yahoo.com.

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