Mother Nature is not known for giving practice swings, but tropical storm Isaias offers a chance to test plans for managing a major coastal storm during a pandemic under comparatively favorable conditions. Much more damaging coastal storms are expected later this season and COVID-19 risks are still serious. We should not miss this chance to learn from Isaias to make future storm preparations as “COVID-smart” and effective as possible.
Forecasters predict an “above normal” Atlantic hurricane season, while the country copes with a highly infectious, deadly respiratory disease. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects up to 19 named storms, including 3 to 6 major hurricanes (ranging from category 3, 4 to 5). This compares to an average season that produces 12 named storms, including just 3 major hurricanes.
When the estimates of a busy hurricane season were released in May, there was still reason to hope that COVID-19 infections would have declined significantly by the time major storms developed. That hope has vanished as COVID-19-related deaths and cases climb rapidly. On Aug. 2, Florida reported a record weekly death toll of 1,312. On the same day, Georgia reported over 3,000 new cases of COVID-19, while South Carolina reported more than 1,000.
How are emergency planners coping with what some have called a “COVICANE?" They are stockpiling personal protective equipment, staging additional buses to evacuate people without overcrowding and setting capacity limits for shelters. FEMA issued guidance authorizing use of “non-congregate shelters” such as hotels, motels and dormitories, and provided checklists for state and local governments on preparedness, response and recovery with COVID-19 in mind.
While these steps can reduce coronavirus risks during and after a major storm, the response during a pandemic still poses major challenges. For example, volunteer organizations play a critical role in emergency response, but many volunteers are in the age categories most at risk of COVID-19. The Red Cross reports that 42 percent of their 21,000 disaster responders are over the age of 65. Manpower shortages can be addressed to some degree by the National Guard and other military units, but military medical personnel have already been deployed to meet COVID-19. Another risk is that volunteers or military personnel responding to disasters will bring the infection back to their homes or bases.
The good news is that, despite an early start to the Atlantic hurricane season, storms to date have been manageable. Hanna hit the Texas coast as a Category 1 hurricane on July 25, delivering 90 mph winds and 15 inches of rain but, thankfully, no deaths. Isaias started as a Category 1 storm and is now moving up the Eastern Seaboard as a damaging tropical storm.
Hanna, and now Isaias, offer a chance to test the emergency response practices developed to account for COVID-19. We should resist the temptation to applaud success in dealing with these manageable storms and turn our attention to a hard-nosed evaluation of our COVID19-adapted response plans. Corrections and adjustments should be implemented aggressively.
Fine-tuning existing response plans is a good start, but not enough. Going forward, we need to more formally amend response plans to account for COVID-19 and other possible infectious diseases and pandemics. For example, as FEMA revises its guidance on state and local hazard mitigation plans, it should require that those plans specifically address the novel coronavirus and its related risks.
Importantly, any rethinking of hurricane preparedness plans must focus on the outsized risks to low-income communities and people of color. The Centers for Disease Control reports that “some racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.” There is growing evidence that low-income and minority communities are more vulnerable to the risks of natural disasters such as hurricanes; these communities also struggle most to recover.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 is not the only new and complicating factor we face in responding to coastal storms. Climate change is causing these storms to become more intense over time and precipitation from storms is increasing. In addition, global sea levels are expected to rise by up to 4 feet by 2100, and increases will be greater along the East and Gulf coasts. These higher sea levels will push storm surges from major storms further inland.
COVID-19, climate change and social justice all require a paradigm shift in the nation’s response to coastal storms and related disasters. For years, the country has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on recovery from major storms while neglecting preparedness planning. Congress has made tentative steps toward shifting investments to avoid storm damages. Now, lawmakers must significantly increase up-front investments in coastal storm preparedness.
Jeff Peterson is a retired senior policy advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency and the author of “A New Coast: Strategies for Responding to Devastating Storms and Rising Seas.”