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The time to start preparing for hurricane season is now

by Jeffery Peterson

Hurricane season starts June 1 and it is predicted to be “above average” in the north Atlantic — with up to 16 storms and four major hurricanes. Remembering the devastation that resulted in 2017 from three major storms — Harvey, Irma and Maria — it is frightening to think how the country will cope with major coastal storms during a pandemic.

The tried-and-true strategy for saving lives in the face of a hurricane is evacuation. But this hurricane season, leaving home to crowd into shelters could restart transmission of the coronavirus. It will be challenging to feed and house evacuees and volunteers while maintaining social distance. Already-stressed hospitals and elder care facilities may need to cope with power outages and prepare for relocation of patients or residents.

With the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) already struggling with coronavirus, designing and implementing innovative storm response strategies that account for the realities of a pandemic will be a challenge. We run a risk where places hit by major storms will shift from pandemic to pandemonium.

The good news is that FEMA is thinking about how to manage the intersection of the pandemic and disasters from major storms. One idea is creation of a second National Response Coordination Center. Another is to ramp up staff by bringing back FEMA retirees. But, a former Florida emergency management director commented on hearing this season’s forecast “FEMA could be overwhelmed.” Another former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said, “FEMA was never built for the really, really big disasters.”

How can we prepare for the one-two punch of coastal storms and a pandemic?

First, start now. We are expecting above average storms this year, and — as we learned with coronavirus — an early warning is an opportunity that must not be missed. So the first thing to do is to define the problem and think through a national response strategy.

The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA have a clear mandate to lead interagency and intergovernmental response after major disasters but no mandate to start preparing for a likely future disaster on the scale of major hurricanes during a pandemic. The president should demand a national plan within 60 days.

Second, the existing mandate for Homeland Security to manage disaster response did not assume the department would already be dealing with another major, national disaster. A national plan for hurricane response this year should call out all available reinforcements.

For example, the Department of Defense (DOD) has demonstrated capacity to provide prompt and critical services to respond to the pandemic, including temporary hospitals, emergency supplies and distribution capability. DOD has the manpower, facilities and transportation assets that could help cope with multiple hurricanes while still accounting for coronavirus constraints. DOD must continue to give its national defense mission priority but could save many lives by playing a greatly expanded role in this season’s hurricane response.

Third, Congress needs to press federal agencies and states to be transparent as they prepare for hurricanes during a pandemic. Closed-door meetings in secure locations erode public trust and confidence, which is essential in a crisis.

Additionally, Congress needs to get ahead of the curve by providing authority and resources tailored to this novel challenge before, rather than after, the damage is done. Because coronavirus magnifies the difficulty in responding to coastal storms, Congress should provide resources for future hurricane response in near-term coronavirus funding measures.

Finally, although it is critical that the country prepare for hurricane challenges this summer, we also must do a much better job of getting organized for the more severe coastal storms and rising seas that are coming as a result of a changing climate. The years ahead will likely not require juggling major storms with a pandemic. But the science is clear: coastal storms will be more severe and rising seas will permanently inundate large areas of the coast.

Today, there is no national plan for coping with ever bigger storms and rising seas. Here, then, is a possible benefit from the current crisis: If we can muster a successful response to hurricane season during a pandemic, we may be better prepared to rethink our relationship to the coast in a warming world.

Jeffery Peterson is a retired senior policy advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency and the author of A New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising Seas (Island Press, 2019).

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 April 17, 2020 on The Hill.

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