People take shelter after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston, Texas. August 29, 2017. Image: Joe Raedle/Getty

Disaster Relief in the Face of COVID-19

Storms don’t care that there’s a pandemic. Between hurricanes lashing the coastal south and eastern seaboard and wildfires blazing uncontrollably in the west, natural disaster season is coming for the US. Experts are trying to figure out how to keep people safe in the midst of COVID-19, during what’s predicted to be an unusually severe year for hurricanes and wildfires.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted 3 to 6 major hurricanes with winds 111 mph or higher for this year, thanks in part to warming oceans that make it easier for big storms to form. By comparison, an average hurricane season has just 3 such storms.

Similarly, the National Interagency Fire Center predicts a busy season, due in part to drought in parts of the western US this spring. On top of these conditions, COVID-19 made preparing for fire season difficult. Firefighters weren’t able to do as many controlled burns of excess underbrush in March and April. That means more fuel for big fires in the coming months. As a result, a firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management, who asked to remain anonymous, predicts, “This is going to be the worst fire season of all time… I am nervous as hell.”

These challenges could be compounded by the risks inherent in traditional disaster relief measures. In 2019, 916,000 Americans were displaced from their homes due to natural disasters. And the effects can be long-lasting. In 2015, over a million people were forced to leave their homes by Hurricane Katrina; more than 600,000 were still displaced a month later. Normally, people who need to evacuate stay with friends or relatives, or in group shelters, but those options are now fraught with the risk of spreading COVID-19.

According to Laura Mellem, the public engagement manager of the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, if there is a hurricane, the city is preparing to evacuate 10% of their population who will need help leaving the city—about 39,000 people. The city is designating 17 pick-up spots for people to be bussed to safer areas, she says, and evacuees will be given N-95 masks. “The city is really responsible for getting people on the bus. And once they're on the bus, the state is charged with sheltering,” she says.

Population health scientist James Shultz, PhD, says that in Florida, emergency managers are considering ways to keep people in shelters safe. For instance, temporary shelters in schools might spread people out more by putting them in classrooms in addition to the school’s gym. But, he notes, these more spacious shelters would require more workers supervising the different rooms. And since volunteer bases are often made up of older individuals who are at greater risk from COVID-19, county employees may be pressed into service.

Federal agencies like FEMA have published recommendations for disaster relief while working to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including keeping families 6 feet apart where possible and using smaller staging teams to prepare shelters. Ultimately though, it’s down to individual states and communities to enforce rules regarding masks and social distancing. “Emergency management works best when it is locally executed, state managed, and federally supported,” wrote FEMA press secretary Lizzie Litzow in an email.

The Red Cross is similarly adapting their plans in light of social distancing. We’re now providing some relief services virtually, including mental health support, condolence care, and financial assistance,” wrote Stephanie Rendon, a spokesperson for the Red Cross, over email. They’ll also be prioritizing putting evacuees in hotels and dorms rather than group shelters. “Since April, we have provided over 23,000 hotel overnight stays to survivors of tornadoes, fires and floods.” 

In addition to overcoming the logistical obstacles to disaster relief during a pandemic, Mellem and Shultz say that communicating the need to evacuate will be crucial.

“The messaging this year is complex-- it’s ‘stay apart to prevent COVID,’ ‘come together in a durable structure to prevent harm from hurricanes,” says Shultz, the director of the Center for Disaster and Extreme Event Preparedness at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.  “You’ve got this sort of collision course.”

“It makes our position, to convince people that [evacuating] is the safest thing for them to do, really difficult,” says Mellem. “We’re investing a lot on our public information side to get this message out quickly early on in the season and to continue to remind people.” These outreach efforts include public service announcement videos featuring local politicians and celebrities reminding people that “the threat from a major hurricane is more severe than virus exposure.”

Until these storms and fires hit, says Shultz, our actions now can make eventual evacuations safer. “We don't have a lot of ability to prevent... storms from forming and coming ashore destructively, but we have considerable power as a community … to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection.

“The greatest impact on the spread of virus when people are evacuating, or sheltering from hurricanes in the fall, will be the choices they're making this week and June and July. And we need to... observe as much distancing and spacing and hand washing and cleansing and other hygienic behaviors as possible, until there's a vaccine.”


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People take shelter after flood waters from Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston, Texas. August 29, 2017. Image: Joe Raedle/Getty