Navigating Natural Disasters Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Navigating Natural Disasters Amidst the COVID-19 PandemicThe Atlantic hurricane season officially started on June 1, and with three named storms already behind us, the looming threat of extreme weather compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing emergency managers to rethink how they will support communities impacted by hurricanes and tropical storms.

Meteorologists are predicting above average hurricane activity this year. AccuWeather has predicted 14 to 18 named tropical storms this season, with about half of them expected to turn into hurricanes and potential major storms.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) published guidance on navigating the 2020 hurricane season and COVID-19 in late May. The guidance was geared toward helping emergency managers and state, local, tribal and territorial (SLTT) officials prepare for and respond to hurricanes and tropical storms during the pandemic. According to FEMA, this guidance can also be applied to any disaster operation in the COVID-19 environment.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency managers are developing new strategies for evacuation and sheltering, acquiring and distributing supplies, and deploying response.

Evacuation and Shelter

In previous years, evacuation and shelter protocols utilized gymnasiums and other large spaces to provide communities with a safe place to gather during severe weather. However, because of the necessity to social distance during this pandemic, that is no longer a recommend response.   Emergency managers must now plan for socially distanced shelter space or potentially providing separate emergency shelters for a large number of people. Hotels or mobile home parks, which pose their own risks, are possible options for individual or family emergency shelters. All evacuees will have to be screened for COVID-19 and those presenting symptoms will have to be sheltered separately. In addition, individuals at high risk for contacting COVID-19 should be sheltered separately.

Emergency managers are having to review their decision timelines and consider declaring an emergency evacuation sooner or in phases to avoid a large concentration of people arriving to a shelter at one time. Evacuation orders will have to be targeted and specific to reduce the amount of people voluntarily evacuating outside of the mandatory evacuation zone.

Acquiring and Distributing Supplies

Throughout the pandemic consistent access to essential medical supplies has been an ongoing challenge. In planning for a hurricane, individuals and response organizations will need to ensure they have items traditionally used in emergency situations on hand as well as disinfectants, soap, hand sanitizer, and masks or cloth face coverings to protect against COVID-19. Response organizations will have to increase their supply of PPE for front line workers and those they are sheltering. The ongoing strain on supply chains may delay the procurement of those supplies and the threat of a storm could cause a run on supplies. Individuals living in hurricane prone or other areas at risk should ensure they prepare their homes and their families for a severe weather event now – ahead of disaster striking.

Emergency managers and response organizations may need to utilize alternate or multiple methods for procuring and distributing essential supplies if their usual supply chains have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Previous Point of Distribution (POD) operations may also need to be reassessed to accommodate social distancing. Emergency managers will need to strategize how they will distribute essential supplies to minimize large congregations. This may require an increase in POD sites that could result in an increased need for personnel. POD sites will also need to review distribution methods to minimize direct contact between personnel and survivors and prioritize the safety of high-risk individuals and people with disabilities.

Deploying Response Systems

With many emergency responders already deployed on the front lines of the pandemic, emergency managers need to plan for how they will supplement their work force in response to a hurricane or tropical storm. Social distanced hurricane responses may require an increase in POD locations, virtual emergency operations, and additional emergency shelters to minimize the size of gatherings.  Localities will no doubt need to increase their support personnel to accommodate these additional needs and considerations. Increasing membership of Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) now is a good idea although it will require virtual training exercises to ensure all support staff are aware of safety measures at disaster facilities including proper facility cleaning and social distancing requirements. An increased workforce will also lead to an increase in the amount of PPE a locality needs to procure for an emergency response.

Emergency managers will likely have to coordinate with state, federal and private partners remotely and have systems in place to carry out remote operations. In the event of a hurricane or tropical storm, a reliable platform for communication will be essential for coordinating with remote partners.

How IEM Can Help

As natural disasters increase in frequency and severity, it is vital that organizations engage with a partner to be a force multiplier that understands how to save lives, protect property, mitigate risk, and build communities back stronger, more resilient after disaster strikes. Well thought out plans and preparation efforts will be key to minimizing the spread of COVID-19 in hurricane response. Planning is at the core of IEM’s mission to build a safe, secure, and resilient world as we work to keeps our clients and partners on the forefront of being ready for all hazards.

Experience shows that natural and man-made disasters rarely fit neatly into “a specific plan.” That is why we deliver planning services that are realistic, and disaster tested, yet flexible enough to help decision makers deal with the complex, real-world needs that must be addressed when dealing with compounded disasters. IEM’s innovative planning approach is being used by jurisdictions and agencies around the country, employing scenario-based resource planning and disaster scenarios to establish a common framework for the identification and evaluation of your capabilities.

IEM uses risk-based, data-driven services to help emergency managers and other decision makers achieve results that work in the real world. By applying our formula of experience, people, and technology we have successfully supported hundreds of emergency management projects for federal, state, local, tribal and territorial government agencies and the private sector worldwide.

To read more about our experience in disaster preparedness and response check out the case studies on our website or contact us directly to learn how IEM can help your community prepare for, respond to, and recover from severe weather events.