Energy & Environment

Coronavirus poses new obstacles for storm response during hurricane season

a satellite photo of a hurricane from space

Atlantic hurricane season officially started Monday, bringing with it concern about the U.S.’s ability — amid the coronavirus pandemic — to proficiently handle what has been predicted to be an above-average hurricane season.

Concerns about adequate resources for some of the government’s key agencies that fight natural disasters in the country have surfaced after considerable funding, personnel and equipment have already been pumped into fighting the coronavirus. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), often the first agency called when a major hurricane hits land, has already allocated considerable resources to fighting COVID-19. 

According to an agency spokesperson, more than 3,100 FEMA employees have been tasked with combating the pandemic. As of April 30, FEMA had committed $5.4 billion to COVID-19 relief assistance from its disaster relief fund. 

And thanks to one of Congress’s multiple coronavirus stimulus packages, the agency’s disaster relief fund was boosted to $45 billion. In its most recent report to Congress on its relief fund, FEMA stated that the fund had roughly $74.2 billion in it going into May.

While $74 billion may seem like more than enough, a major hurricane could run the fund completely dry. For reference, in 2017, Hurricane Harvey — a category 4 hurricane — did an estimated $125 billion in damage to Houston. 

In fact, FEMA allocated more than $6 billion in aid this fiscal year to continue the recovery process from 2017’s trio of deadly storms — Harvey, Maria and Irma.

In April, Florida Sens. Rick Scott (R) and Marco Rubio (R) wrote a letter to FEMA, requesting that the agency release guidance for this year’s hurricane season, saying that it’s a time that puts Floridians “on edge,” regardless of the pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has infected 1.8 million Americans and killed more than 108,000 people in the country, poses a unique problem for hurricane sheltering. 

During hurricanes, people who haven’t been able to evacuate the affected area are forced to seek shelter in large gathering places, such as schools, churches and sports arenas.

These emergency shelter situations have often featured incredibly tight quarters and at times unsanitary conditions, such as the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. 

Various state leaders and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have warned against congregating in large groups without a face covering and observing at least six feet of distance to stem the spread. 

Toward the end of May, FEMA released guidance requested from the Florida senators. 

In the 59-page document, the agency pointed out some of the changes that would occur in its relief operations should a hurricane hit because of the pandemic.

“Due to the risks associated with COVID-19 and congregate sheltering, including standards for occupancy rates, equipment requirements, and assessment of at-risk or vulnerable populations, this approach will be adjusted,” the guidance reads.

Per FEMA’s guidance, local governments are to identify structures that can be used as “non-congregate shelters,” where people can find shelter while following social distancing guidelines issued by the CDC. According to FEMA, these non-congregate shelters can “include, but are not limited to, hotels, motels, and dormitories.”

A FEMA spokesperson added that the agency had “replenished supplies in our distribution centers across the country with water and shelf-stable meals. … We have meals in vendor-managed inventory, purchased by FEMA but stored in a vendor warehouse, which is above and beyond the number of meals we normally store in our distribution centers.”

The agency also released updated guidance for individuals and families to follow when preparing for hurricane season during the pandemic.

“A prepared citizenry will lead to better-prepared families in our neighborhoods, cities and towns, ensuring that states, territories and tribes will be truly ready for challenges that come with disasters,” the spokesperson said. 

Scott’s office said that the senator was “glad to see FEMA issue comprehensive guidance to address the CDC’s Coronavirus guidelines and procedures to keep Floridians safe and healthy.” 

In March, researchers at Colorado State University predicted that the Atlantic would experience an above-average hurricane season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concurred, giving a 60 percent chance that this year’s hurricane season in the Atlantic will be “above-normal.” 

 “NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which 6 to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including 3 to 6 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher),” the agency said in a May 21 statement. 

“NOAA provides these ranges with a 70% confidence. An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which 6 become hurricanes, including 3 major hurricanes,” it continued. 

However, on Thursday, four days into the start of the Atlantic’s hurricane season, Colorado State University researchers revised their predictions, forecasting “well above-average activity.”

“We anticipate an above-normal probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the continental United States coastline and in the Caribbean,” researchers wrote in their updated findings.

The researchers say that there’s a 70 percent chance that a category 3,4 or 5 hurricane makes landfall somewhere on the U.S. coastline.

However, even with revised federal guidance, it’s unclear how hurricane conditions — such as mass flooding — will affect the spread and transmission of COVID-19.

Hanadi Rifai, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the University of Houston’s Hurricane Resilience Research Institute, is studying what she calls the “joint vulnerability” of Harris County. 

Rifai defines joint vulnerability as the overall risk someone has of contracting COVID-19 should a hurricane hit the Houston area this year. Rifai’s ongoing research looks at factors such as a person’s age, underlying health conditions, proximity to resources such as health care and food and how their living situation was affected by Harvey (i.e. if they experienced flooding). 

“In some ways it’s good that … there’s no issue of being at work or children in school, at least not for the moment as we’re still in a lower activity level,” Rifai said. “But at the same time, the issues are going to be slightly more magnified for the vulnerable populations and the populations that are at risk of flooding or storm surge or wind damage or if we lose power and basic services.”

During Harvey, flooding plagued the Houston area. The storm dropped a record 60.5 inches of rain, covering 70 percent of Harris County in water. The expansive flooding affected 800 wastewater treatment facilities and over a dozen Superfund sites, causing sewage and toxic chemicals to seep into flooded areas.

Whether a person could contract COVID-19 from wastewater is unclear, Rifai said. 

“We know that COVID-19 has been observed in wastewater … the raw wastewater that’s coming from the home into a wastewater facility,” Rifai explained. 

“Now at the wastewater facility once it’s treated and dealt with, there’s really not an issue, and there’s not been reported cases of infection from that source. However, in a flood those wastewater facilities may actually flood and release some of their contents into the environment.” 

Rifai noted that in normal circumstances, flood waters from hurricanes can cause health issues such as asthma, E. coli and other bacterial infections. 

Rifai admitted that Harvey was an abnormal case because of how much rain it produced, but said she “wouldn’t be surprised” if Houston saw some kind of storm event, though she declined to make a specific prediction.

According to Colorado State University researchers, the “Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle westward to Brownsville (Texas),” has a 45 percent chance of experiencing a category 3,4, or 5 hurricane this hurricane season.

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