The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season — which runs each year from June 1 through Nov. 30 — was record-shattering, with 30 named storms. Of these storms, at least half a dozen were billion-dollar disasters, leaving hundreds dead. Unfortunately, experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) still anticipate that 2021 will be a bad hurricane season for the Atlantic. In its latest outlook, the agency predicts 15-21 named storms — including seven to 10 hurricanes and as many as five severe hurricanes at Category 3, 4, or 5. Such numbers would mark the sixth consecutive above-average season on record.
Following NOAA’s warnings of a hurricane season ramping up, an alarming report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just been released, considered to be their starkest warning yet on climate change. U.N. experts are indicating that unless immediate actions are taken to reduce global warming, hurricanes will continue to become stronger, with heavier rainfall and higher flood risk. A 2020 study in the journal Nature also found a higher flood risk, as hurricanes are moving more slowly with increased rainfall. In regard to the IPCC report, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres describes the findings as a “code red for humanity.”
In preparation for increasingly severe hurricane activity amid climate change, governmental agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are reshaping policies to brace for greater environmental impact. Beginning Oct. 1, the program will be overhauled to make insurance pricing more accurately reflect property flood risk, based on location and factoring in environmental activity. The timing will coincide with NOAA’s prediction of severe storms to come later this season.
At the ground level, and as recent hurricanes Grace and Henri showed, the 2021 hurricane forecast presents emergency and disaster management (EDM) personnel — as well as health care, public health and public administration officials — with challenges greater than ever before. While presented with a confluence of factors —including the ongoing pandemic — public servants should move forward this season by applying lessons, new and old, to address anticipated issues, including:
Pre-positioning of supplies — The public’s hoarding of supplies in the days and hours before a hurricane strikes results in runs on batteries, gasoline, plywood, bottled water, and the like. Due to the pandemic and resulting long-term supply chain issues, we have seen store shelves wiped clean of meat, cleaners and disinfectants and other household essentials within mere days. EDM and public health officials should be working now with retailers and suppliers to ensure hardware stores and supermarkets in hurricane-prone regions are adequately stocked. That includes personal protection equipment and face masks.
Enhanced COVID testing and vaccination — As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns, COVID delta variant cases continue to rise, yet the number of tests and vaccinations in individual states and localities shows considerable variation. States should make COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts a higher priority and widely available, particularly for elderly and vulnerable populations, first responders and frontline personnel, in those coastal and low-lying areas that would be most severely affected by a storm. They also need to get results and supplies to citizens more quickly, which could be even more of a challenge in the middle of a bad storm.
Different thinking on evacuation orders — EDM and public health officials are also conferring about hurricane evacuation policies. Typically, a hurricane’s approach is accompanied by both mandatory and voluntary evacuations, resulting in clogged roads and overcrowded hotels and relatives’ homes across inland and surrounding areas. Given continued COVID-related concerns authorities this year may encourage more sheltering in place for those whose residences fall outside of the most dangerous zones, and whose lives are not in imminent danger.
More shelters less densely occupied — Related to evacuation concerns is the challenge of finding and securing access to multiple evacuation centers, which will accommodate displaced residents in safe, less densely packed facilities, appropriate social distancing can occur and be enforced. Special consideration is likely to be given to our most vulnerable populations, including the elderly living in retirement facilities and nursing homes, as well as millions of Americans who may face eviction as debate continues around the CDC’s latest moratorium. And for those who have tested positive for the coronavirus — whether they are symptomatic or not — local authorities may want to arrange for and provide immediate access to separate, COVID-positive evacuation shelters.
Need for more comprehensive recruitment of volunteers — During past hurricane events, the best of human nature and the American spirit has been demonstrated time and again, as hundreds if not thousands of volunteers flock to devastated areas in the wake of the storm. This year, officials have seen the COVID-19 pandemic prevent and discourage volunteer participation. Currently, the Red Cross is calling for volunteers in high-risk areas to deal with the dual challenges presented by the pandemic and hurricanes ahead. Universities with undergraduates in EDM and public health fields should also consider recruitment efforts to identify specialized volunteers, who in exchange may receive on-the-ground experience.
Communication is essential — Governors, mayors, emergency managers and public health officials in hurricane-prone states are typically proactive in their public communication when a hurricane is perhaps a week or more from landfall. Given the overlay of new pandemic-related concerns this year, those authorities should actively communicate now about their hurricane preparation policies and plans — and endeavor to keep politics out of the conversation. Residents and businesses, having responded well to their leaders’ calls for lockdowns, social distancing and mask-wearing, will appreciate the forethought and be better prepared should a storm emergency materialize over the course of the next three or four months.
Though emergency and disaster management, health care, and public health experts find themselves between a year dominated by COVID-19 with an alarming environmental forecast ahead, they are remaining resilient and working hard to prepare the public — both with tried-and-true methods, as well as new instincts developed over a year of unprecedented circumstances.
Christopher Reynolds, Ed.D., CEM, is dean and vice president, Academic Outreach and Program Development at American Public University System (APUS), and a 37-year certified emergency manager. Samer Koutoubi, M.D., Ph.D., is the Public Health Department chair and associate professor, School of Health Sciences, at APUS.