Major Disaster: What’s the COVID-19 Plan for Hurricane Season?
We have already paid profound physical, emotional, and economic prices for the stay-at-home orders across the country. Things are only going to get worse as those orders are projected to continue until mid-summer. If the orders are lifted too quickly and social gatherings start to spread the virus again, we’ll undo all of the hard work that has already been done to stop it.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 isn’t the only disaster that we need to be thinking about. Atlantic hurricane season is less than two months away, and experts are already forecasting an above average number of storms.
Why is a hurricane such a big deal during COVID-19? This is normally how we deal with a hurricane:
- Tell everyone living in the “cone of uncertainty” to go to the grocery store and stock up on 3–7 days of supplies
- Issue an evacuation order for the area at the center of the storms path sending residents to stay with relatives, at inland hotels, or in public shelters
- Send a fleet of ambulances to move critically ill hospital and nursing home patients out of the storm’s path
- Provide hot meals to evacuees from a contingent of volunteer groups staffed primarily by elderly retirees (Red Cross, Salvation Army, Southern Baptists, United Way)
- Deploy an army of utility and construction workers from other states to repair power lines, clear debris from roadways, pump away flooding water, install emergency generators, patch washed out roads, inspect bridges, and fix damaged roofs
- Clean up houses after the storm by removing wet carpets, cutting out drywall, and bleaching any flooded areas of the house to stop mold growth while wearing a N95 mask and googles to protect yourself
- Have FEMA, Army Corps, National Guard, and other federal agencies work with state and local governments to organize response and pick up the bill for labor costs and damages
COVID-19 turns the normal hurricane plan upside down because:
- Grocery stores have been sold out of many essential supplies for weeks (toilet paper, canned food, cleaning supplies), are restricting the number of customers who can be inside the store creating long lines outside, and will only sell a limited quantity of these items when they are available. We can’t tell citizens to stock up on supplies before a hurricane.
- To stop the spread of COVID-19, people need to stay in their homes and avoid visiting friends and extended family members. During a normal hurricane evacuation, thousands of people from coastal areas go stay with friends and family elsewhere. Others would choose to stay in a hotel, but most of those are closed because of the pandemic. People who can’t afford a hotel, don’t have transportation, and don’t have family to stay with end up in a public shelter. Having hundreds — or thousands — of unrelated people sleep on cots and share communal bathrooms in a school, church, community center, or sports arena is probably the worst thing that could happen when we are tying to slow the spread of COVID-19.
- After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of critically ill and elderly people died when hospitals and nursing homes lost power for days. Since then, medical evacuations have been a priority before a hurricane strikes. However, this process requires hundreds of ambulances from other jurisdictions and dozens of hospitals prepared to accept the incoming patients. The reason for the stay-at-home orders is to “flatten the curve” so that hospital and EMS capacity isn’t exceeded. While dealing with COVID-19, our fragile health care ecosystem, already buckling at the seams, lacks any extra capacity to deal with thousands of medical evacuations before a hurricane. Even if an out-of-state hospital had open ICU beds, would the state’s medical director allow a plane full of COVID-19 patients to be accepted? If COVID-19 patients can’t be evacuated, emergency generators normally supply 3 days of power — but these critically ill patients may need ventilators for as long as 2 weeks.
- Volunteers are the backbone of a hurricane response because they cook meals, set up shelters, sort donations, and distribute supplies. Many of these volunteers are kind-hearted elderly retirees, because working people can’t leave their jobs and families for a few weeks to help out after a storm in another state. These volunteers are the highest risk group for COVID-19 and they can’t be sent to work and live in congregate shelters hundreds of other people.
- Just like Red Cross volunteers, utility and construction workers need to come from other states to help with repairs and usually stay in shared hotel rooms or temporary “base camps” with tents and cots. Will these essential workers be willing to leave their families and live in close quarters in communal settings? If emergency workers become ill with COVID-19, how do you stop the spread between them while getting emergency repairs finished?
- Cleaning supplies, bleach, and construction grade N95 masks have been unavailable for weeks. If citizens aren’t able to get the supplies to clean up their homes and prevent mold growth after minor flooding, there will be major property damage and their homes will become completely uninhabitable.
- FEMA is the federal agency leading the COVID response and when hurricane season starts, FEMA’s staff will have already been working nonstop for 3 months. State and county emergency managers, fire, police, and EMS have also been operating at full capacity with extended work schedules. When a hurricane threatens landfall at a coastal city, who is going to be available to coordinate the response? Will someone working on critical COVID-19 supply distribution suddenly be reassigned to the hurricane? Will these vital personnel already be at the point of burnout?
The traditional way that we respond to a hurricane isn’t going to be possible this summer as we continue to deal with a global pandemic. Beyond these shortfalls, there are a few situations that quickly escalate into making the disaster exponentially worse.
Worst Case Scenarios
- COVID-19 ICU patients can’t be transported out of the impacted area and are left inside hospitals without power after generators fail
- Nursing home populations are evacuated into aggregate temporary medical facilities where COVID-19 spreads between them
- A mega shelter with thousands of citizens has a COVID-19 outbreak and as a result, the shelter population can’t be sent anywhere else, require medical care, and needs to quarantined
- State police are ordered by the governor to block highways to prevent evacuees from spreading COVID-19 into their state (e.g. at the Florida/Georgia line)
Planning Needs to Happen Now
FEMA and every coastal state have a Hurricane Response and Hurricane Recovery plan. While there is still 2 months of time before hurricane season (June 1-November 30), every jurisdiction needs to evaluate their hurricane plan and decide how their COVID-19 hurricane response will be different. This will lead to some difficult questions like what are we going to do if we can’t evacuate the hospital and are we going to tell people to not evacuate and shelter at home instead of going to a public shelter? Not making these decisions ahead of time killed thousands of people during Hurricane Katrina. People may die during a hurricane this year who would have been easily saved in the past. Swallowing that bitter pill now is better than waiting until the lights start flickering as wind and rain batter the windows of the hospital.
COVID-19 has permanently changed our country. We need to realize right now that the way we have responded to major disasters in the past is not going to work this year. Figuring out new strategies can’t be put off until the storm makes landfall.
David Riedman is Ph.D. student in Sociology at the University of Hawai’i and an expert in critical infrastructure protection, homeland security policy, and emergency management. He was a volunteer firefighter for 18 years and is a co-founder of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Advanced Thinking and Experimentation (HSx) Program at the Naval Postgraduate School.