This Hurricane Season, the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Complicating Disaster Response Plans

Experts predict an “above-normal” hurricane season, and officials planning a response will have to take into account social distancing.

Cots are set offering temporary shelter at First Baptist Church following Tropical Storm Imelda in Hamshire, Texas, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. The remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda lashed Houston and coastal Texas, inundating homes, paralyzing travelers, disrupting oil supplies, and threatening hospitals and refineries. Photographer: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Cots are set offering temporary shelter at First Baptist Church following Tropical Storm Imelda in Hamshire, Texas on September 20, 2019. Photo: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg /Getty Images

In the lead-up to a hurricane, residents of high-risk areas may find themselves subject to evacuation orders. Some travel to other states that fall outside the storm’s projected path, while others stay with friends and family who live in higher-elevation homes. Many people flock to shelters prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its state and local counterparts. Volunteers pitch in to assist with first aid and essential supplies like food and toilet paper.

The coronavirus pandemic — and the attendant social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders — has upended hurricane planning protocol for the 2020 season, a five-month period that started on June 1. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted in May this season will be “above-normal,” with as many as six major hurricanes expected. To put this in perspective: The agency predicted two to four major storms in 2019, and three in 2018. Major storms are those classified as Category 3 or higher, with winds of at least 111 miles per hour, and are guaranteed to yield significant destruction and death.

It’s the first time in U.S. history that hurricane season planning will have to take into account social distancing, and the first time every state and territory has simultaneously declared a “major disaster” — a designation that allows them to access millions in federal funds and assistance from FEMA.

“This is very uncharted territory,” said Lauren Sauer, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins, where she studies disaster response and how disasters impact health care infrastructure. “Almost everything we’re doing is new, and we’re already seeing shortages on essential supplies.”

For now the federal government is projecting an air of confidence. In a recent briefing FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor told the president his agency is ready to handle the challenges of hurricane season and Covid-19, noting they’re “more than fully funded” thanks to an extra $40 billion allocated from recent pandemic appropriations, on top of the $40 billion FEMA typically begins hurricane season with. The agency also put out guidance last month on how leaders should plan to navigate the next few months. “FEMA is prepared to address unique disasters with a customized response that meets the mission need while minimizing the potential for COVID-19 exposure,” a spokesperson told The Intercept.

Like many workplaces around the country, FEMA has had to adapt to teleworking in light of the pandemic, and those adjustments will extend to hurricane response as well. In its recent hurricane guidance, the agency said it’s expecting “many aspects” of disaster response could be operated remotely. In an email, a FEMA spokesperson said that includes inspection processes, preliminary damage assessments, coordinating meetings with government officials, and increased public communications through internet and social media platforms. “Depending on the needs of a particular disaster, it may still be necessary to send Disaster Survivor Assistance teams, search and rescue, damage assessment teams or communications technicians into a disaster area,” the spokesperson said.

When asked how FEMA will provide remote services if internet and cell service is no longer available, the spokesperson said they coordinate with industry partners and federal agencies to provide “temporary communications solutions” if the traditional infrastructure is degraded. Still, independent experts and some members of Congress are less sanguine about the federal government’s readiness.

Last week Democrats on the House Subcommittee on the Environment sent a letter to FEMA criticizing its hurricane guidance as lacking important details and noted staffing shortages the agency is facing. The “available personnel qualified to lead field operations has fallen from 44 to 19, staff members have been pulled from responding to other disasters, training centers have been shuttered, and new employee recruitment efforts are on hold,” they wrote. The letter cited a Homeland Security Department inspector general report from March that reported FEMA lacked “a coherent strategy” for using advanced contracting during Hurricane Maria, and a Government Accountability Office report that documented FEMA’s challenges in responding to hurricanes and wildfires in 2017. The lawmakers requested a virtual hearing with Gaynor by June 22 to discuss FEMA’s plans for navigating Covid-19 and natural disasters, including tornadoes, wildfires, and hurricanes.

While the federal government deliberates, states and cities have been taking steps to consider how they might plan for evacuation shelters while maintaining social distancing. Officials are hoping to screen evacuees with temperatures checks, to require masks, and to isolate anyone with symptoms. “States will most likely need to identify more sheltering capacity [than normal],” said Brant Mitchell, the director of the Louisiana State University’s Stephenson Disaster Management Institute. “One potential solution may be contracting with hotels due to decline in hotel capacity resulting from stay-at-home orders. Typically during disasters that is not an option for the state but may be a consideration due to the circumstances of the lockdowns.”

Another challenge is that often during hurricane season, many who lack the means to physically evacuate the state in an emergency make plans to shelter with a neighbor or friend whose house may be on higher ground. With coronavirus, though, there may be less willingness among individuals to let people crash in their home.

“The base elevation of our house is 9 feet so we’re completely safe from flooding and storm surge, and I’m pretty sure we’d be able to survive OK even during the worst possible hurricane,” said Hugh Gladwin, a retired Florida International University sociologist and anthropologist who studies hurricane evacuations. “We have a guest bedroom and we could take two people in, but I’m elderly, I have a heart condition, and I have to be certain they don’t have Covid-19 because I would croak.” Gladwin said he’s making plans with two friends who live in a condo on the Miami coastline but acknowledged it requires a higher level of trust and coordination than is typical.

Relatedly, hurricane experts are expecting less volunteer assistance both from within state and out-of-state due to coronavirus. “Typically we’ve relied on volunteers from the American Red Cross and partners from Division of Social Services and a lot of those volunteers are what you would classify as high risk population,” explained Mike Sprayberry, North Carolina’s director of Emergency Management, in a recent interview with ABC11. “We had 35-40 states that provided us with assistance during [2018’s Hurricane] Florence. … We’re pretty much going to have to be aware that we’re not going to be able to count on assets from other states like we would have in the past.”

People wait for breakfast as they and others seek safety in a shelter as Hurricane Michael approaches on October 10, 2018 in Panama City, Florida. - Hurricane Michael closed in on Florida's Gulf Coast on Wednesday as an "extremely dangerous" category four storm packing powerful winds and a huge sea surge, US forecasters said. The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said the storm, which local forecasters are calling an "unprecedented" weather event for the area, is expected to slam ashore later in the day with "life-threatening" storm surges. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

People wait for breakfast as they and others seek safety in a shelter as Hurricane Michael approaches on October 10, 2018 in Panama City, Florida.

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Experts say evacuations could be a mess, particularly for vulnerable populations. And while such events are always challenging, public health officials recognize that a call to evacuate during a pandemic could confuse people who have heard for months that the safest thing they could do was to stay home and social distance.

“There will be a good chance some might assess that their risk is higher from getting Covid than the hurricane and they need to understand that if an evacuation order is issued, it’s incredibly important that they leave,” said Sauer.

Gladwin said he’s worried about highway gridlock while a Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane goes over vehicles. “We’ve had almost no experience with that, just because we’ve gotten lucky,” he said. “We would have that with Irma” — a Category 4 hurricane that hit in 2017 — “if Irma had stayed on its original trajectory.”

In New Orleans, where many residents lack the means to evacuate themselves, Mitchell said Louisiana typically contracts with roughly 600 commercial buses to transport people to state-operated shelters and shelters in other states. “Due to social distancing requirements a commercial bus that may be able to transport 60 passengers may only be able to transport half that capacity or less,” he explained. “This will require either additional buses or moving the evacuation timeline up significantly to allow the buses to make multiple trips.” And whether states will welcome evacuees if they’re coming from a city that had a large outbreak is another area of uncertainty. I’m “not sure what the answer is but it is certainly something the state has to be prepared for,” Mitchell said.

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In many ways, the states that frequently get hurricanes and are bracing for more severe ones this year may be somewhat better positioned than states that have less experience planning for and dealing with them. In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, for example, the local government mailed a hurricane readiness handbook to all homes in early June that included instructions on making plans amid the pandemic.

“I think we’ll make it through here in Florida, but I am extremely worried about other parts of the country,” said Gladwin. “Here we are in good shape in terms of hospital capacity, but take a state like Georgia or the Carolinas. If they’re still on their wave of coronavirus infections going up and their hospitals need more capacity, that could be a big problem.”

Mitchell agreed that Louisiana might also be better positioned and noted state officials started planning for shelter capacity and evacuation routes back in April. “The state will be as prepared as they can for a major hurricane making landfall in [Louisiana] during this pandemic,” he said.

Sauer says the most important thing the federal government could be doing right now is scaling up its emergency response workforce, planning ahead for transportation, and working to contain Covid-19. “I think more attention should be paid right now to where all these states are reopening and we’re still seeing a ton of hotspots,” she said. “We need to use public health interventions to keep those cases low.”

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