Bracing For Hurricanes: A Qualitative Analysis of the Extent and Level of Preparedness Among Older Adults

Chongming Wang, PhD


Gerontologist. 2018;58(1):57-67. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Background and Objectives Older adults are at greater risk than other age groups throughout all stages of a disaster. To date, the bulk of empirical disaster research concerning older adults has centered on the consequences of a disaster. This study focuses on older residents in a hurricane-prone community and investigates the extent and level of their reported preparedness for hurricanes, which takes place prior to a disaster.

Research Design and Methods This study engaged year-round older residents of Sarasota County, Florida. Semi-structured interviews were conducted for 30 older individuals of 60–90 years of age. Transcripts were analyzed by qualitative content analysis integrating both inductive and deductive coding approaches.

Results Older respondents overwhelmingly practiced survival preparedness by only storing water and food supplies, but lacked efforts in planning and structural preparedness due to insufficient awareness and financial resources. Most respondents asserted hurricane readiness despite the shortage of preparation practices because "being prepared" is defined differently for different individuals. Many respondents claimed hurricane experience and subjective interpretation rather than objective nature of prior exposure appeared to have a greater influence over respondents' reported preparedness behavior.

Discussion and Implications This study adds to the emerging, but highly limited body of work specifically addressing disaster preparedness among older adults. The interview data inclusive of respondents' voices and values suggest that expectations by emergency managers that older individuals will follow hurricane preparedness recommendations may be misplaced. More practical and age-specific interventions are needed to promote disaster preparedness of older adults.


Disaster preparedness refers to preparation practices taken prior to a disaster in order to minimize potential loss and devastation from the disaster (Coppola, 2006). Although disaster preparedness involves key actors across different levels, preparedness efforts that occur at the smallest unit are fundamentally important to self-sufficiency if external assistance becomes unavailable (FEMA, 2004; Kohn et al., 2012; Russell et al., 1995). Despite the value of personal preparedness reiterated by researchers and practitioners, the U.S. public is overall underprepared for disasters, lacking a complete set of emergency essentials, an evacuation plan, or a family emergency communication plan (National Center for Disaster Preparedness, 2011; Kohn et al., 2012; Redlener et al., 2007).

Numerous research efforts have been devoted to understanding what motivates or impedes preparation actions and accounts for the variations in level of disaster preparedness. It has been well recognized that personal preparedness is a product of multiple influences (Cutter et al., 2011; Fothergill & Peek, 2004; Morrow, 1999). Irrespective of the type of hazard under consideration, scholars have consistently concluded that income level and educational attainment are positively associated with preparedness behavior (e.g., Baker, 2011; Edwards, 1993; Lindell & Hwang, 2008; Lindell & Perry, 2000; Russell et al., 1995). In recent years, high stocks of social capital have been increasingly treated as a facilitator of disaster preparation actions and climate change adaptation (Heller et al., 2005; Pelling & High, 2005; Reininger et al., 2013).

In contrast, the influence of experiential factors on personal preparedness appears less uniform. Although some researchers have suggested that hazard experience enhances preparedness (e.g., Lindell & Prater, 2000; Russell et al., 1995), others have argued that the influence is not absolutely positive but contingent on the nature of the experience (e.g., Harris, 2012; Kellens et al., 2013; Lindell & Perry, 2012; Peacock et al., 2005; Whitehead et al., 2000). To illustrate, in the context of hurricane preparedness, multiple exposures to near-misses lulled people into a sense of complacency, making them underestimate the need for extensive preparations as they assumed future hurricanes would be of similar character and consequence (e.g., Sattler et al., 2000). Here, the "emotional experience" of hazards mediated by subjective perceptions serves as an important aspect of preparedness, pointing to the possibility that basic orientations toward oneself (e.g., self-efficacy) and the world (e.g., perceived risk and vulnerability) influence individuals' preparedness behavior (Miceli et al., 2008; Sattler et al., 2000).

Researchers have also attempted to understand personal preparedness in relation to demographic characteristics but findings have been mixed. For example, some have suggested that greater disaster preparedness is positively related with age (e.g., Ablah et al., 2009; Murphy et al., 2009; Norris et al., 1999), whereas others have argued that preparedness declines with age after a certain age threshold (e.g., Baker, 2011; Kohn et al., 2012). Another emerging but limited branch of research on the age effect centers on the preparedness of the older population. Results from the United States and international survey samples have demonstrated that older adults are minimally prepared for disasters (e.g., Al-Rousan et al., 2014; Kang, 2014; Loke et al., 2012). Nevertheless, as noted earlier, preparedness efforts are defined by multiple variables beyond chronological age. Older adults might be less likely to engage in preparedness behavior because they could have accumulated more near-misses given their greater life experience and thus a growing sense of complacency eroding their disaster readiness.

It is noteworthy that quantitative methods have long dominated disaster research, in which researchers examine population characteristics and make statistical inferences about motivations for and barriers to behaviors based on these parameters (Riad et al., 1999). However, the lack of systematic conclusions from limited literature directly addressing older adults' disaster preparedness provides no foundation to formulate meaningful hypotheses. Although qualitative studies are not designed to make statistical generalizations, they are well-suited to illuminate the concerns with personal knowledge and subjective experience (Clark & Creswell, 2008) to provide a more sensitive picture of vulnerable populations, such as older adults, at risk from hazardous events (Tuohy et al., 2014). As the world's population ages rapidly and evidence of elder vulnerability to disasters continues to accumulate (Baylor College of Medicine and American Medical Association, 2006; Muramatsu & Akiyama, 2011; Rhoades et al., 2017), more age-specific analyses using more contextual methodological approaches are much needed to expand and enrich our understanding of older adults' disaster preparedness, which if well-planned and -managed, can reduce vulnerability.

These issues lead to the formulation of this study, which performs qualitative interviews with older residents in a hurricane-prone community—Sarasota County, Florida—and asks three research questions. First, what hurricane preparedness activities have the respondents implemented? Second, do the respondents think they are prepared for hurricanes? Third, in what ways might hurricane experience have influenced hurricane preparedness of the respondents? Section 2 details the study area and research methods. Section 3 discusses the findings regarding hurricane preparedness, readiness, and role of experience in preparedness efforts. Section 4 recapitulates the major findings of each subtopic and concludes with the political implications of the study as well as the avenues for future research.