Hurricane Dorian

Hurricane Dorian: Who’s Most at Risk?

Natural disasters often impact people who are more socially vulnerable, including those without access to a vehicle, people with a disability, and older adults.

Those most vulnerable to natural disasters include populations over 65, very young children, and people with disabilities.  (Photo by Zack Wittman for Direct Relief)
Those most vulnerable to natural disasters include populations over 65, very young children, and people with disabilities. (Photo by Zack Wittman for Direct Relief)

Hurricane Dorian is currently over the Bahamas and is projected to head north, sparing Florida the full force of its Category 5 strength, according to the National Weather Service. Serious damage was recorded Sunday in the northern Bahamas, where the storm wreaked havoc with winds of 185 miles per hour and intense storm surges.  Florida is still bracing, even though it may not experience a direct hit. Certain populations are among those especially vulnerable to the storm’s impact.

Between Titusville and Port St. Lucie on Florida’s east coast, almost a quarter of the population is over the age of 65 and an estimated 15% of people have a disability of some sort, according to a social vulnerability analysis by Direct Relief’s Research and Analysis team, based on U.S. Census data.

The number of people over 65 in that part of coastal Florida is 8% higher than the U.S. average, though the number of people with a disability is 11% lower, based on CDC data.

“Natural disasters… have a profound destabilizing effect on older adults, who often have multiple medical problems, including functional and cognitive limitations. They often also have medication and nutritional needs that suffer in the days following a storm,” said David Dosa and Kali Thomas, Brown University School of Public Health faculty members, in a Brown University-published article about their NIH-funded research on how hurricanes impact the elderly.

Direct Relief’s latest Esri-hosted Geographic Information Systems map for Florida and The Bahamas displays local demographic information along with other health infrastructure data — including the location of pharmacies, urgent care centers, hospitals, public health departments, and Direct Relief’s Hurricane Prep Packs — with the goal of revealing the social vulnerability characteristics of an area as well as all relevant health data.

For The Bahamas, a high resolution settlement layer has added. This layer was built by combining satellite imagery and household survey from the Bahamian government. Then, AI is able to place settlement populations in very precise ways, with an accuracy to 30 meters, according to Facebook Research.

In Florida, the population mapping is accurate to the county or census block level.

“By combining new data sources on what’s happening to populations during a crisis, with more established sources on what makes people vulnerable before a crisis, we gain a new set of insights into how different and dynamic communities really are when the respond to emergencies,” said Andrew Schroeder, head of research and analysis at Direct Relief.

“For Direct Relief, that gives us a window into what they need, when they need it, and more precisely where that need may be greatest,” he said.

Beyond infrastructure and age, the map also pulls data from CDC on income levels, which can give NGOs, public health officials, and health care professionals more insights regarding how to best position resources in order to serve those who might need it most.

“About 2% of the population in this area has no access to a vehicle, which doesn’t sound like a high percentage, except that it’s a pretty densely populated area so that equates to just over 25,000 people,” said Schroeder, in discussing one of the more granular pieces of data he analyzed.

Deciding whether to evacuate people remains a difficult call to make for state and local officials, though having access to new sources of information helps.

“[Evacuation] Decisions aren’t made lightly. You have make sure you don’t make unnecessary moves, so that people don’t take action next time,” said Mike Steele, Communications Director for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in Louisiana, a state which had to make such decisions ahead of Hurricane Barry earlier this year.

This decision is even more complex in Florida’s coastal regions, given the high percentage of elderly residents.

First shared in The Conversation, research from Lindsay J. Peterson, an instructor at the University of Florida’s School of Aging Studies, and Kathryn Hyer, a USF professor and director of the Florida Policy Exchange Center on Aging, shows that the evacuation of nursing home residents posed a greater risk to their health than staying in place. Their analysis focused on storms that hit between 2005 and 2008, including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike.

The National Emergency Management Agency of The Bahamas and Tallahassee Emergency Operations Center is preparing to use the map as well, with a particular eye towards population movement.

Direct Relief is planning to send an Emergency Hurricane Kit to Florida’s Department of Health and is also coordinating response efforts with The Bahamas’ Ministry of Health, Pacific Disaster Center, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, and Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.

Fifteen Direct Relief Emergency Hurricane Kits — each of which has about 150 essential medicines and medical items — are already in Florida, and four additional pallets full of supplies are in transit from Direct Relief’s California warehouse. Staff members are on the ground and ready to respond to requests from partners in The Bahamas, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

In Florida, a Direct Relief representative will be working out of the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

Direct Relief staff are slated to be arriving Monday, via seaplane, to Grand Bahama and Abaco with sufficient medication for up to 1,000 people.

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