Compounding Disasters During COVID19

Disasters don’t happen in isolation. Never has that been more true than today. Hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes are not cancelled because we are dealing with COVID-19. There is no part of disaster response and recovery in 2020 that will not be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. A pandemic means responding to emergencies is harder and less safe.

The US crisis response system was already tasked from three years of particularly difficult hurricane and wildfire seasons—and the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season (June 1st through November 30th) is expected to be more active than normal, as is US wildfire activity. Of course, having more active seasons doesn’t mean a major emergency is guaranteed. But if one happens, response and recovery will both be impacted by the need to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

SumacGeorgiaEF2damageWe don’t have to wait for the effects of hurricane season or wildfire season to hit the US to see how the COVID-19 pandemic is compounding other emergencies. Over Easter weekend there were 123 confirmed tornados across the southern US including two EF4s in Mississippi—one of which is the third largest US tornado on record. In Tennessee, emergency personnel were given PPE to wear while doing search and rescue. In Mississippi, people in shelters had to wear face coverings and practice social distancing. In Arkansas, shelter capacities were lowered to allow for social distancing. Some disaster agencies sheltered people in hotels and asked others to shelter with friends and family if possible.

In mid-May, India and Bangladesh were in lockdown for COVID-19 when Cyclone Amphan made landfall along their border. This area is no stranger to strong storms, but their plans were all stymied by COVID-19. Evacuations were hindered by social distancing needs and by people choosing to stay home when they would normally evacuate to shelters. Recovery is hampered by unique obstacles. A COVID-19 hotspot in Kolkata which has been blocked for containment purposes has also flooded from the storm.

In the Kasese district of Uganda, where the Kasese Humanist School operates, recently there has been widespread flooding from heavy rainfall. People who were already experiencing increased food and income insecurity because of stay-at-home orders have now been forced to evacuate their homes. As in India and Bangladesh, shelters could become hotspots for COVID-19 transmission where social distancing is harder to maintain.

Disaster preparedness is also not happening the way it normally would. In the spring, teams in LA would typically be doing training and preparing for the peak of fire season by inspecting and reducing brush that could fuel fires—all of which has been curtailed. In Washington State, the first of three annual fire academies has been canceled. National preparedness meetings have been cancelled or postponed. When big fires break out, firefighters from all over the country and the world typically come to help. Transporting people to the fire sites and the “fire camps” where firefighters live while working on big fires creates both logistical safety and containment concerns. Even without a pandemic, fire camps frequently have infection outbreaks.

Hurricane preparedness is working to adjust plans for hurricane response during COVID-19 while expecting a busier than average season and knowing emergency management funds are already strained by COVID-19 response alone.

Emergency management teams in areas most hit by hurricanes and tropical storms are reviewing every aspect of their plans to try to adjust to the new obstacles COVID-19 brings. Whether to make evacuation orders now includes concerns of spreading COVID-19. If a hospital or assisted-care facility needs to be evacuated because of a storm, the logistics—already complex—will require more planning and resources. Emergency managers are looking into engaging more buildings for shelters—including vacant hotels—and needing more buses to evacuate the same amount of people. Communicating any new hurricane plans to the public makes the effort that much harder.

airman-adriana-sotelloExperts are currently working on plans for fighting wildfires, responding to hurricanes, and tackling any emergency we encounter during the pandemic, but whatever plans they make, they will not completely mitigate the obstacles COVID-19 is creating. NOAA is predicting 13 to 19 named storms, six to ten hurricanes with three to six of them being major.  Researchers at Colorado State University estimate a 70% chance that at least one major storm will hit US soil. Any major hurricane hitting land during this season is potentially catastrophic.

At FBB, we are committed to safe, effective response and recovery even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As this year’s hurricane season develops and as we encounter any other disaster events this year, we will keep you informed and respond when necessary.

Further reading:

The Humanist Disaster Recovery program is sustained through a partnership between Foundation Beyond Belief and the American Humanist Association (AHA).

We thank AHA for their generous support of our efforts.