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COVID-19 — a catalyst for change

COVID-19 — a catalyst for change
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Despite the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on our health and economic security, it is currently forcing coastal communities to alter normal hurricane evacuation, response, recovery and mass care plans. I believe the virus can serve as a catalyst to save lives in future disasters by calling into question current hurricane planning and evacuation strategies. 

Specifically, the pandemic should push America to implement strategies to eradicate the human-made disaster of “mass evacuations” from tropical systems in the future. The typical actions taken by governments to enforce mass evacuations in preparation for a potential hurricane landfall can sometimes have a more significant effect than the hurricane itself. In our current environment, even the mere threat of a hurricane can create a humanitarian disaster due to moving too many people too far inland and, as a result, possibly increasing exposure to the virus. COVID-19’s impact on our current evacuation planning philosophy will only increase problems experienced during mass evacuations and it is time to think differently.   

Populations continue to grow in hurricane impact and storm surge areas. These populations are vulnerable. As an example, elderly populations aged 65 and older often live in coastal areas and are disproportionately affected by both severe storms and COVID-19. As a result of these trends, the evacuation clearance time, the time it takes to move out of the storm surge and flood-prone evacuation zones, continues to increase. If things do not change, it’s not hard to imagine future evacuations needing to occur 5 to 7 days prior to the storm making landfall to safely move people out of harm's way. This is not a sustainable practice in the future.  

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To combat the growing disaster of mass evacuation and the effects of a changing climate, America must work to create smart, sustainable and resilient coastal communities that allow people to shelter-in-place rather than evacuate. By considering smarter land use planning, implementing stronger building and residential codes, improving preparedness education and mitigating community lifeline infrastructure, I believe America can collectively reduce the impact of stronger and more frequent future hurricanes. The goal should be to reduce the number of people that need to evacuate and/or the distance needed to travel to seek safe refuge.   

Here are my recommendations: 

Hazard-conscious community design starts today. When hurricanes make landfall, they push a wall of water inland. This “storm surge” is what results in most of the fatalities and damage. The goal of emergency management during hurricanes is to move people out of areas that may be at risk of storm surge and into facilities designed to handle flooding and winds. However, if communities are not designed with adequate hurricane shelters, evacuees must move great distances to safety. This problem will continue to grow until both government entities and the public understand that communities must be designed to withstand both storm surge and winds. Getting out of a storm surge vulnerable area should not require people to travel hundreds of miles, but tens of miles at most (unless the surge vulnerability doesn’t allow for this in certain communities).    

Strong building codes and proper land use planning must be incentivized. With proper building codes and land use planning, the distance and time it takes for a person to get to safety can drastically be reduced. Doing this will dramatically decrease shelter demand, prevent traffic jams and reduce the humanitarian support requirements associated with evacuees. It also reduces the negative economic impact to businesses, families and the response bill to taxpayers. Currently, people must evacuate coastal communities because there is no confidence in building and residential codes. The cost saved on the back end of a hurricane will far eclipse the upfront construction cost to build to a higher standard. Just ask community leaders and residents that watched their communities get destroyed by the 2017 and 2018 hurricanes. America is on an unsustainable course; governments and communities must incentivize stronger homes and businesses who are in hazard-prone areas. To better understand the building codes used in your community, visit Inspect to Protect.

Market-driven resilience is the key. Realtors and appraisers in our communities are the link to the implementation of resilience. For example, properly mitigated homes should be valued much higher than similar homes not built to withstand threats. Buyers need to understand what an unmitigated structure could mean to them and their family if hit by a powerful storm in the future. The insurance industry should also provide incentives to homeowners that properly elevate and mitigate their homes to avoid future loss. Also, citizens must be informed that any house can flood regardless of what flood maps depict. Insurance is the first line of defense, not FEMA assistance. Having insurance has proven to help homeowners recover quicker after a disaster.  

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Finally, Congress should allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reduce disaster recovery cost share percentages for jurisdictions that proactively implement strong building codes and comprehensive mitigation strategies to protect their infrastructure. FEMA should also be allowed to increase disaster recovery cost share percentages for communities that refuse to implement codes and continue to build in vulnerable areas despite repeated losses and evolving hazards.  

Government must get real. We are already seeing above average hurricane activity in 2020 and experts predict a high probability that one or more hurricanes will make landfall in the continental United States. At the same time, mass evacuation orders disproportionately impact our most vulnerable populations: those without personal vehicles, those facing asset poverty, those who are medically fragile, and those in long-term care facilities

As planners prepare for another hurricane season and modify plans to accommodate COVID-19 impacts, so too should they consider a future where the fewest people possible are moving the shortest distance possible to safety. 

I hope COVID-19 will be used as a catalyst for positive change and guide us to become more resilient as a nation. By safely reducing the number of people asked to evacuate and working to reduce the distance traveled to seek safe shelter, officials will improve the capacity to support evacuees and better address the challenges associated with future hurricanes and pandemics.

Brock Long is the executive chairman for Hagerty Consulting and a former FEMA administrator under the Trump administration.