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Reimagine Everything: Lessons From Hawaii for Keeping Elders Safe in a Disaster

By August 25, 2023September 8th, 2023No Comments

Craig Gima

The wildfires on Maui are a stark reminder that a disaster can happen at any time and that thinking about and planning for a fire, hurricane, tsunami or other disaster is imperative, especially for kupuna (elders) and their caregivers.

Preparation for a disaster involves preparing and practicing a disaster plan and stocking and maintaining a disaster supply kit in case you need to evacuate.

Fires are especially dangerous for elders. Older Americans are 2.5 times more likely to die in a fire than the general population. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Fire Administration have tips for kupuna and organizations that help to reduce risk of fire death.

Those tips include having a working smoke detector and practicing an escape plan for fires. The American Red Cross has its Sound the Alarm program to provide smoke detectors at no cost to kupuna and others who need them. The website also has tips on planning an escape route from a fire.

Elders and their caregivers should have an emergency plan for any natural disaster, including power outages and earthquakes in addition to fires, hurricanes and tsunami. One of the keys to a successful plan involves creating a support network of family, neighbors and friends.

Family caregivers may not be able to reach a loved one in an emergency, especially during an evacuation. Caregivers of people with dementia will also need more than one person to watch over a loved one to help keep them calm and make sure they don’t wander away.

You should also keep an emergency grab bag with medications, important papers like passports and power of attorney, medical instructions and phone numbers and contact information, phone charger or batteries, etc. A larger bag should contain water and food. FEMA and Red Cross have recommendations on what your emergency kit should contain.

Hawaii emergency management officials recommend having a 14-day supply of food and water for each person in a disaster supply kit. That’s significantly increased from what’s suggested for the mainland and previous recommendations in Hawaii of three to seven days of supplies. The concern is that harbors could become unusable in a disaster, and Oahu could run out of food before the ports can be reopened.

If you need to evacuate your home, don’t assume that the nearest school will open as an emergency shelter. Some facilities that had been designated as emergency shelters in the past are now in expanded flood or tsunami zones. See if a relative or friend’s home in a safe area can be used as a back-up shelter, and it’s a good idea to line up more than one back-up shelter in case the first one is not available.

Check your home to see if it is engineered to survive a severe storm and if it is outside of tsunami and flood zones. If you live in a concrete building on an upper floor, you may be better off to shelter in place during a storm or tsunami.

People whose loved ones are in a care home or nursing home should ask to see the facility’s disaster plan. Get the phone number of and get to know the person in charge of evacuating residents. If the facility’s disaster plan is not adequate, urge or help them to update it or find another facility that can handle an emergency.

Help your friends and neighbors prepare for a natural disaster. AARP has prepared a guide to help people, organizations, church and community groups create fun, informative workshops such as a document photocopying event to make sure people have copies of vital documents in an emergency; an event to prepare basic emergency supply kits; and a workshop to develop an evacuation plan. Download our plans at

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Craig Gima is the communications director for AARP Hawai’i.