Friday, September 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: Ways to prepare for the next Big One

In most areas of the Sunshine State, recovery from Hurricane Irma is well under way. While we're still in an active hurricane season, there is no Big One on the horizon.

Now is the time to prepare for the next major storm. And that starts with learning from hard-won experience — not just as individuals and families, but also as communities and as a state.

AARP can help. With the World Health Organization, AARP is working with more than 180 communities nationwide, including 17 in Florida, to make our communities more livable for people of all ages. We're proud to have entered a new partnership with the Florida Department of Elder Affairs and its Communities for a Lifetime initiative.

Here are three areas where Floridians can make progress as we recover from Irma:

• PHYSICAL INFRASTRUCTURE. For most Floridians, the power is back on, gas is easy to find, and roads and bridges are intact. The Keys began welcoming back tourists on Oct. 1. But make no mistake, we have work to do.

Our transportation system is car-centric. That means our cities are hard to evacuate and hard to navigate if fuel is in short supply.

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Our housing is too rarely affordable, and not often well-designed for people of all ages. While post-Hurricane Andrew building codes seem to have proved their worth, our buildings and public spaces could be better equipped to help us in these sorts of crises — whether by designing parks and infrastructure in ways that funnel water away from our homes or by ensuring that buildings to be used as storm shelters are adequate to the demands of our communities.

State and local governments need to be focused on policies that modernize our physical infrastructure and attract new ideas in the private sector to overcome these challenges.

• SYSTEM INFRASTRUCTURE. Rightfully, most of the post-Irma attention has focused on the deaths of a dozen nursing home residents in Hollywood.

But we must broaden our lens, because Florida needs more robust systems to protect its older residents. That is especially critical in a state with America's highest proportion of age 65-plus residents and that is also skewing older rapidly.

Special needs shelters in some communities proved insufficient. Assisted living facilities and high-rise apartments suffered from the same lack of backup power that cost the Hollywood victims their lives. And for millions of older Floridians living at home, Irma exposed the lack of a strong network to check on those who are well enough not to need services in good times but vulnerable enough to be at risk of harm if stuck without power for an extended period. Properly addressing these issues will require both policy changes and greater civic involvement.

• CIVIC INFRASTRUCTURE. One of the most encouraging responses to Irma came when neighbors helped neighbors. And it happened all over Florida.

But many Floridians are new to the state. We come from not just all over America but all over the world. Too rarely do we feel as though we belong to each other.

No wonder, then, that Florida lags in civic infrastructure such as volunteer opportunities or ways to get to know your neighbors. Fixing streets and sewers is expensive but easy to grasp. Embracing our connection — finding what it means to be a Floridian — is more complicated. But revamping our civic infrastructure is just as important.

Floridians are notorious for many things; one of them is a short memory. Before we forget this hurricane season, let's take the necessary steps to ensure that the Florida that faces the 2018 hurricane season next June is a stronger, more secure, better connected one.

Jeff Johnson is AARP's Florida state director. He, his wife, April, and their daughter Becky live in St. Petersburg.

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