Keeping Older People Safe in Deadly Weather

Urban Resilience Project
5 min readFeb 7, 2024

By Danielle Arigoni

The winter storms that swept across the U.S. in recent weeks claimed at least 55 lives (with some estimates as high as 95) — the latest in an ever-growing number of deadly climate-related disasters. Those disasters take a disproportionate toll among older adults.

During last winter’s blizzard in Buffalo, New York, for example, nearly two-thirds of those who perished were over age 60. One 63-year-old died after attempting to relocate because there was no power at her home to operate her oxygen machine. Another woman (aged 73) failed to heed public orders to shelter in place because she had limited English comprehension. These and other deaths are the result of a failure to ensure effective notification systems, backup power and assistance for people whose health and mobility needs require focused attention.

Buffalo’s “once in a generation” storm may have been unique, but its risks to older adults were not. In Hurricane Katrina (2005), people over 60 accounted for two-thirds of nearly 1,000 fatalities; in California’s Camp Fire (2021), 85% of the deaths were of people over 65; and in the Lahaina, Hawaii wildfires (2023), 73% of those who died were over 60. The fact that the death rate for older adults in climate-fueled disasters remains virtually unchanged over the last nearly 20 years tragically reveals our failure to plan and prepare our new reality.

As a country, we are unprepared for more events like this — not just winter storms, but also extreme heat, powerful hurricanes, punishing droughts, persistent flooding and intense rainfall — all of which are becoming more common as climate change takes hold. And older adults, who are most vulnerable to climate disasters, are also the fastest-growing segment of our population. One hundred years ago, people over 65 represented just one of every 20 people in the U.S.; today, they account for one in five. In about 10 years, there are projected to be more people over 65 than under 18 in the U.S. — for the first time ever. That is why we no longer have the luxury of planning for climate resilience without considering age (which I argue in detail in my book, Climate Resilience for an Aging Nation).

Why are older adults more vulnerable? While many people over 65 are able-bodied, financially secure, and mobile, many are not. Older adults generally outlive their ability to drive by seven to 10 years and are reliant on other sources (friends, family or public transit) for their mobility, which is a less-than-ideal solution in times of emergency. Roughly four in five people over 65 live with two or more chronic health conditions, many of which are exacerbated by climate hazards such as extreme heat. One in nine older Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Only 4% of older adults live in congregate facilities like nursing homes or assisted living, meaning that 96% live in the community — and of those, nearly 30% live alone. Many lack the financial ability to stockpile supplies or weatherize their home because they live on a fixed income and lack savings; that is especially true for the 15% of older adults who live near or below the poverty line.

All of these conditions (and more) make it essential that planning for climate change is rooted in the needs of older adults. Not only because they are an increasingly large share of our population, but because when we solve for the needs of older adults, we also reduce risk for people of all ages who are low-income, or don’t drive, or who live with disabilities. We also solve for the needs of our future selves, as we all seek to live in a community that will be safe, resilient, and responsive to our needs as we age and as our abilities shift while also adapting to our new climate future.

So, what can be done? Well, a lot.

Public officials and planners can ensure that transit alternatives exist and truly meet the mobility needs of older adults, both on a daily basis and in times of emergency. Emergency managers can design and implement communication systems that include and leverage community-based assets like home health aides and volunteers to ensure that timely information reaches older adults in modes that work for them. Health care and aging services providers can engage in conversation with those they serve about how their dementia, or heart disease, or ambulatory limitations exacerbate their risk to climate-related conditions. There is a role for every sector and every individual to take action to better reduce the risks that older adults face in our climate future.

The time to begin this work has long since passed. We are fast approaching both our climate tipping point of 1.5 degrees Celsius, as well as the demographic tipping point in which we will be a country of more older adults than children. Let’s each take it upon ourselves to bring a clear-eyed perspective to the task of advancing climate resilience for our aging nation.

Danielle Arigoni is managing director of policy and solutions at National Housing Trust and a policy and program expert in the fields of livable communities, affordable housing and climate resilience. She has worked for more than 25 years in the federal government and nonprofit sectors in pursuit of more equitable, sustainable, and resilient places. She began her career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya and has since led impactful and innovative teams at USAID, EPA, HUD, and AARP. She serves on the boards of Smart Growth America and the League of American Bicyclists. Danielle is the author of the new book Climate Resilience for an Aging Nation (Island Press).

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published January 25, 2024 on The Messenger.

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Urban Resilience Project

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.