Hurricane Season to Bring Nested Natural Disaster Amid Pandemic

The encroaching hurricane season brings with it new complications as Americans are still reeling from the coronavirus.

A storm-watcher takes pictures of the surf in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., as Hurricane Michael approaches in 2018. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)

(CN) — Do you have surgical masks in your hurricane kit? The U.S. advocates for hurricane preparedness every first week of May, but this year two factors intensify pre-storm season anxieties: the spread of Covid-19 and projections of an intense hurricane season.

A report released last month from Colorado State University forecasts “above-normal” activity with 160 tropical cyclones, as well as 16 named storms, 8 hurricanes and 80 named storm days. On average, coastal communities see 12 named storms, 6 hurricanes and 60 named storm days annually.

The continental U.S., the East Coast, Florida, and the Gulf Coast all face an increased likelihood of a hurricane making landfall, according to the report that will be updated throughout the summer as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation shapes the season.

“We will take every precaution necessary because we do have to open up the shelters,” said Preston Bowlin, director of emergency management for Marion County, Florida. “We are preparing as if we will still have this pandemic lingering around.”

Bowlin said staff at emergency shelters will take temperatures to isolate the sick and that shelters will be stocked with masks, rubber gloves and hand sanitizer.

Parts of the community are still reeling from Hurricane Michael, which destroyed 50,000 structures across the Florida panhandle in October 2018, with gusts of wind upwards of 139 miles per hour, killing 31 people and causing $25.1 billion in damage.

Last April, the Congressional Budget Office estimated economic losses caused by hurricane wind damage and flooding added up to $54 billion annually, including $34 billion in lost household income, $9 billion from businesses and $12 billion from the public sector.

“Hurricanes are a multi-impact phenomenon. You have storm surges and flooding; you can have wind impacts that blow down trees or roofs can be lifted up. Depending on the storm, an entire home can go down,” said Jhordanne Jones, a graduate research assistant who worked on the Colorado State report.

Though the season appears to be a recipe for disaster, Jones pointed out that some of the best defenses against storms, like floodwalls and building codes, have been years in the making.

“The whole point is to start thinking about these things early on so that when push comes to shove, we are prepared,” Jones said.

Some first responders have already begun on-the-job disaster training amid the overlapping public health crisis.

Beginning in early March, the American Red Cross responded to spring flooding, tornados and house fires across Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee. To ensure social distancing, the organization is sheltering people in hotels whenever possible.

Upon intake, staff check temperatures and isolate those who appear ill. Meals are served individually and hand sanitizing stations mark entryways. Some displaced families receive an iPhone so counseling can occur remotely.

Trevor Riggen, senior vice president for Disaster Cycle Services at the Red Cross, said the organization has 750 shelter kits ready stocked with goggles, masks, gloves and gowns, as well as hand sanitizers, thermometers and supplies for handwashing stations.

“You want to make sure facilities are safe havens for families to come to so that even if they know they’re sick or they have to evacuate, they know there’s a safe place for them to go,” Riggen said.

Before the storm hits, Riggen said people should take a second look at their evacuation plans. Evacuees may not be able to shelter with elderly family or may need to travel further to find shelter since social distancing means fewer people can be accommodated in each shelter.

Riggen said to heed the call for evacuation early on. Even in an average year, he said people are reluctant to leave their homes.

“For families, it’s a hardship to evacuate your home and leave for days or weeks. It’s expensive. It’s disruptive. And then you add in the threat of a pandemic on top of that, all of a sudden that family’s looking at multiple reasons to wait to the very last minute to leave,” Riggen said. “Hurricanes can be extremely dangerous and can change very quickly, so evacuating as early as possible is always the right answer.”

Other disaster response organizations have pulled back physical volunteers and shifted to work they can do from home.

“We were having conversations of ‘How do we adapt if one of our volunteers or staff gets Covid-19,’ and then frankly we took a step back and said, ‘Should we be out there right now?’” recalled Erik Dyson, CEO of All Hands and Hearts, a volunteer-based organization focusing on long term disaster recovery.

The non-profit collected $14 million in donations and provided disaster response in eight different countries last year.

In mid-March, All Hands and Hearts withdrew 400 volunteers from around the world, even managing to get team members on flights before Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte closed the borders.

The organization poured its remaining resources into Covid-19 response, sourcing supplies from China and donating its stockpile of KN95 respirators, rubber gloves and face shields to dozens of hospitals and community groups, including the Island Harvest Food Bank in New York and the Boston Medical Center.

“Right now, you can’t keep things in warehouses looking for something that might happen when your healthcare workers died on the frontline,” Dyson said.

“We’re doing what we can in these extraordinary times, not really our core mission, but if we can help bring a couple hundred thousand dollars and PPE to the frontline heroes that need it today, that’s what we should be doing,” Dyson said.

Up and down the East Coast, state and local emergency departments are counting their supplies, planning for the worst and hoping for the best.

“This is something that we regularly plan for,” said Fred Gaskins, communications coordinator for the coastal city of Hampton, Virginia. “Whether it’s a major storm, or whether it’s something that is expected and passes us by, we deal with storms on a regular basis.”

For the Florida Division of Emergency Management, hurricane preparedness is ongoing.

“As FDEM continues to respond to Covid-19, hurricane preparedness is still a major function for the Division. At the State Emergency Operations Center, there is a planning section that is fully activated to ensure the state is ready for all contingencies, and this includes planning for hurricane impacts during this outbreak,” a representative said in an emailed statement.

While many say coastal communities have good hurricane plans, others are skeptical given the Sunshine State’s response to the pandemic.

Assuming coronavirus continues to spread at a consistent rate — with an average of 680 new cases confirmed daily in Florida last week and a total of 1,399 deaths — some residents worry that without good quarantine now, storm evacuees will worsen the spread of the disease.

“Everybody on the east coast just runs to the west coast or heads up to the panhandle to get away from it. Well, now you’re just going to double the population over on the other side of the state and cross contaminate,” said Jim Kennedy, a rocket scientist at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, who is running on the Democratic ticket to represent Florida’s 8th District in Congress. “If people don’t quarantine now, it’s going to kick even harder.”

Years of weathering storms have prepared Floridians for hurricane season, Kennedy said, while the virus is still hard for many to visualize.

“There’s nobody who grew up in Florida that doesn’t know someone who lost a car or had a tree fell on their house,” Kennedy said. “With a virus everybody gets sick, but you can’t picture it. It’s not something that’s going to be on the news that you can say well there’s my house and I see the clouds coming.”

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